Chuck Colson, Watergate Felon and Evangelical Leader, Dies at 80

Chuck Colson’s life as a political enforcer for Richard Nixon was the stuff of movies. Dubbed “Nixon’s Hatchet Man” by the Wall Street Journal, he was the first aide to be convicted in the Watergate Scandal. Colson, however, would have a “Born Again” experience, receiving Christ after a conversation in the office of Raytheon CEO Tom Phillips.

This conversion catapulted Colson from the world of politics into the heady world of Evangelical leadership. Though convicted and sentenced to one-to-three years in prison, he’d served only 7 months when Doug Coe, leader of the Family, wrote to secure Colson’s early release, according to Jeff Sharlet in his book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of America’s Power.

“Doug Coe, in a letter to the board dated one day later, wrote that Colson’s freedom was necessary so that a group of Christian Men could put him to work on a program for ‘reaching youth’ in juvenile delinquent homes.” Sharlet goes on to say that the two men would collaborate on what would become the model and inspiration for a generation of “faith based government activism.” Doug Coe of the Family, James Dobson, and Francis Schaeffer—a Who’s Who of Evangelicalism—would support Colson’s new endeavor called Prison Fellowship, founded in 1976. According to Sharlet, with Coe’s help and “The Fellowship’s” money, it was designed to evangelize and teach prisoners the gospel. Moreover, Colson saw Prison Fellowship as fighting a “moral decadence.”

Colson would go on to become a major figure in Evangelicalism like his mentors, promoting conservative values in Prison Fellowship, and also influencing the Evangelical mainstream. Colson would start the Justice Fellowship, a criminal justice based reform group in 1983, and would later win the Templeton Prize in 1993 for Progress in Religion.

The other facet of his work, however, was in declarations and statements. Joining with Richard John Neuhaus of First Things in 1994, they published Evangelicals and Catholics together, an ecumenical document affirming what beliefs Catholics and Evangelicals could agree about, and affirming the Christian mission. Many Evangelicals disagreed with the statement, and Colson’s ministries suffered financially for a time. Later in 2009, Colson would sign the Manhattan Declaration, another Evangelical-Catholic manifesto against abortion and gay marriage.

For Evangelicals, Colson represents the epitome of the salvation story: an evil man made good, turning to Christ and ministering to the incarcerated. Colson’s legacy is much more complicated. David Sessions wrote in The Daily Beast about how Colson helped to popularize the concept of “Christian Worldview,” an articulation of Evangelical belief as a philosophical system in opposition to -isms like Deism, Darwinism, et al. As an Evangelical ideas man, Colson was just as dangerous as he was when working for Nixon—only this time his boss was Jesus.

I am certain that in the next few days, there will be a constant reliving of Colson’s life story in the media and on talk shows. Make no mistake: Colson’s life both before and after Watergate was one in which the most powerful people funded and supported the work that he did, whether it be the Nixon administration or Prison Fellowship. Both worlds were mediated by Colson’s worldview. Both were worlds of power and prestige. The message may have changed for Colson, but his support system remained ensconced in a particular kind of power. That system, buoyed up by The Family and other evangelical men of power, is a system undergoing profound change through the death of its leaders. It will be interesting to see how the Evangelical power infrastructure weathers the loss of one of their giants, and what new structures of power within Evangelical Christianity seek to take prominence.

Anthea Butler [@AntheaButler] is a Contributing Editor to Religion Dispatches. Her forthcoming book, in’The Gospel According To Sarah: How Sarah Palinin’’s Tea Party Angels are Galvanizing the Religious Right will be out in 2013.