One of Charles Colson's many influential roles in his later life included acting as a key adviser during the George W. Bush administration. The founder of Prison Fellowship was an adviser on issues such as the faith-based initiatives, human rights, the war in Sudan, persecution, AIDS in Africa, sex trafficking, prison reform, and partial birth abortion. Karl Rove, President Bush's deputy chief of staff, spoke with Christianity Today about Colson's impact politically, culturally, and spiritually.
What do you think of Chuck Colson's life and ministry?
He is the ultimate story of redemption. 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. His life was a witness to his deep faith, and he nurtured the faith of others in deep and profound ways. We can talk about all the things he did to influence our culture and stand for principles of faith. To me, as remarkable as they are, [it's more remarkable] that he mixed that with a life in which he took a personal interest in the salvation of so many people he came in contact with and did so in a thoughtful, compassionate, and caring way. I personally benefited from it in the status of my faith and the condition of my soul. It was deeply moving to me and he made a profound difference in my life. What I saw was a profound influence in so many lives he came into contact with.
May I ask about your faith and where you are?
Well, I'm a Christian. I was a born a Presbyterian and became an Episcopalian. Chuck took a personal interest in deepening my faith. I really admired the way he so kindly sought out people and helped them along in their faith journey. He would send me notes and call occasionally. It mattered a great deal.
What about his influence on President Bush—did he have a policy-level or a faith influence?
They had a very warm relationship.
Did you lean on Chuck for advice on evangelicals?
He was more concerned about the policy. What could be done to broaden the role of faith-based institutions in the public square? What efforts was the President willing to make, whether it was children of prisoners or to help ensure faith-based groups had a bigger role in anti-recidivism efforts. His attitude was, "You have bright, young people involved in the politics. Can I talk to you about substantive questions of policy?"
Chuck was willing to talk politics, but he was more interested in policy. Chuck was interested in Sudan, Chuck was interested in faith-based institutions, Chuck played a role in encouraging the White House to adopt a program of mentors and support for children of prisoners. Chuck's influence was not limited to, "What are evangelicals thinking?" 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 whom much is given, from him much is expected.'"
When he was in the Nixon administration, Colson was seen as a hatchet man.
He was described as "willing to run over his grandmother" to make a point. You've been portrayed as Bush's hatchet man. Does that kind of person have to fill that role?
I'm not going to sit in judgment of Chuck when he was in the White House. The Nixon White House is now distant history. I think if you talk to my colleagues, I was less than a fearsome individual. I would have strong opinions and be prepared to argue my case, but if you talk to my colleagues, I think you'd find they consider me the jokester, the informal mayor of the West Wing.
What about when he renounced the role he played during Watergate?
Look, I think it was an important step on his road of redemption. Here's a guy who said, "I did wrong things and I paid a price. I sought forgiveness." There was contrition there. No doubt about it. It's what made Chuck such a profoundly moving figure. He sought his Lord and his Lord came to him.
Did the administration ever hope Chuck would persuade evangelicals on the administration's positions?
That was up to us. Chuck was valued for his advice and counsel.
Many people attribute Bush's win to evangelicals' role. What was Chuck's role in that?
To the degree that values issues mattered in the election, Chuck's influence was probably more in the second election than in the first because of policies like the faith-based initiatives. You're putting Chuck in the wrong context. You're putting him as a political warrior instead of being a faith and culture warrior.
Do you think people will focus on his political context?
It is one facet but not the most important facet of his later life.
Christianity Today published a lengthy profile of Charles Colson in 2001.
Colson was a regular columnist for Christianity Today from 1985 until his death.