Charles Colson, respected evangelical leader and former President Nixon adviser, died Saturday afternoon at age 80 from complications resulting from a brain hemorrhage.
Over the span of several decades, Colson became one of evangelicalism's most influential voices within the movement and to the broader culture. Observers suggest Colson will likely be best remembered for his prison ministry, behind-the-scenes political involvement, work on evangelical and Catholic dialogue, and his cultural commentary.
In many ways, Colson's life encapsulated the eclectic nature of evangelicalism. His example shaped how evangelicals would promote ministry and social justice, evangelism and ecumenicism, cultural and political engagement, radio and writing, and scholarship and discipleship.
"His demonization in the 1970s has been replaced by lionizations in the 2000s—at least among the nation's 65 million evangelical Christians," Jonathan Aitken wrote in his 2005 biography. Aitken portrayed Colson as an important but flawed figure in evangelicalism, "America's best-known Christian leader after Billy Graham."
Before his conversion to Christianity, Colson was described as an aggressive political mastermind who drank heavily, chain smoked, and smeared opponents. He served as special counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1969 to 1973 before he was indicted on Watergate-related charges, which led to a 7-month prison term. After his conversion experience, he published Born Again, helping popularize the term many evangelicals use to self-identify.
Colson's public commitment to his faith drew initial skepticism from those who wondered whether he was attempting to profit from a conversion narrative. Criticism faded over time with his 30-plus years of commitment to prison ministry.
"The most important takeaway is that he was a specimen of God's amazing grace, one of the most remarkable in modern times," said Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University. "Over time, he proved to the whole world that this is the real thing."
Colson's "born again" phrase began to catch on in mainstream culture. Before the 1976 election, a reporter asked Jimmy Carter if he was "born again." "Yes, I am born again," Carter said. Reporters took notice and began to analyze and popularize the phrase that attempted to capture the Christian conversion story of repentance, redemption, and spiritual re-birth.
The same year, national magazines deemed 1976 the "year of the evangelical," the year conservative Christians took on the political scene.
Colson was a key adviser in the George W. Bush administration, according to Aitken's biography. He was a confidant and adviser on faith-based issues such as human rights, the war in Sudan, persecution, AIDS in Africa, sex trafficking, prison reform, and partial birth abortion.
"Chuck's influence was not limited to 'What are evangelicals thinking?'" said Karl Rove, Bush's deputy chief of staff. "He was willing to provide guidance on that, but he was more interested in, "Here's what an evangelically-minded president ought to be concerned about in fulfillment of the admonition that ‘To much is given, much is expected.'"
President Bush publicly supported Colson's work, asking Congress in his 2003 State of the Union address to allocate $300 million to help prisoners. His influence was not limited to politics, Rove said.
"In all of my dealings with him in the last 15-20 years, I found him to be one of the most kind and gentle and thoughtful human beings I've ever met," Rove said. "His life was a witness to his deep faith who nurtured the faith of others in deep and profound ways."