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Chuck Colson and the Conscience of a Hatchet-Man
Image: Courtesy of Prison Fellowship
Chuck Colson and the Conscience of a Hatchet-Man

I suppose I should see some irony in some of the more vindictive journalistic pieces slinking out since the death of Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson. It's not that I mind these articles focusing on Colson's Watergate crimes and his rather nasty political persona prior to conversion; Colson emphasized that too. More problematic is the smug undercurrent that somehow Colson's life in ministry to criminals was somehow just some sort of "cover-up" for who he "really" was: a dirty trickster for whom everything was politics. Even as they bury the hatchet-man, some journalists just can't bury the hatchet. And, as they center everything on Watergate, they demonstrate that Nixon wasn't the only one with an Enemies List.

I found myself reflecting this morning on my own hypocrisy in my irritation with these cynical secular editorials and news pieces. After all, I'm the one who rolls my eyes at an evangelical victim mentality that cries "media bias" whenever we aren't represented fairly. In my anger at these writings, I evidenced a spirit closer to Watergate-era Richard Nixon than to the post-Watergate Chuck Colson. Nixon's downfall, after all, was at least partly due to his consuming desire to be accepted by the media and culture mavens of American society. President Nixon's rage was because he really cared what the New York Times and the Washington Post wrote about him.

It's just bad journalism to portray Chuck Colson as some sort of born-again Machiavelli of the Religious Right. After his conversion, Colson was discipled in the Christian faith by a progressive Republican (Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon) and a liberal Democrat (Sen. Harold Hughes of Iowa). Colson did engage political issues, but he consistently warned against the entanglements of evangelical Christianity with the Republican Party, recalling how he and the Nixon team had used some Christian leaders for their own purposes. And Colson clearly wasn't some sort of activist, transferring his political ambitions from the West Wing to the sawdust trail. If he were to do that, he wouldn't have chosen issues clearly outside the Religious Right playlist: prison reform, prison rape, injustice in application of the death penalty, and so on.

Still, we shouldn't be angered by journalists who don't get the full measure of the man. We should instead hear in some of this cynicism the cry of every human heart, a disbelief that there can be any such thing as final and total forgiveness of sin. There's a reason, after all, why President Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon prompted such initial outrage. It seemed that Nixon escaped justice. He wasn't held accountable for what everyone knew to be evil: lying, conspiracy, obstruction of justice. For some, Colson's transformation from disgraced hatchet-man to beloved religious statesman was from the same cloth.

The gospel of Jesus Christ, however, isn't a Gerald Ford-like pardon. It doesn't simply promise freedom from consequences. The gospel deals honestly and soberly with what the conscience knows to be true: human guilt. Colson understood this kind of tactic while in the Nixon White House. If you can find some "dirt" on an opponent, you can silence them. You can hurt George McGovern by planting his campaign materials in the home of George Wallace's would-be assassin Arthur Bremer. You can compromise the "Pentagon Papers" by releasing the psychiatric records of their author. You can win against the Democrats if, by phone taps, you can prove they're getting Cuban money. And so on.

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Chuck Colson and the Conscience of a Hatchet-Man