(RNS) Bethany Goodman, a 29-year-old digital media consultant, found her role model on weekday mornings while driving to high school in Bel Air, Md., a suburb northeast of Baltimore.
It turned out to be a man she’d never meet, and someone many times her age.
And yet Goodman said Chuck Colson — perhaps most famous as President Richard M. Nixon’s special counsel or “hatchet man,” and later a born-again evangelical — solidified her worldview, through daily radio commentaries called “BreakPoint.”
“I was able to hear directly from his voice during and after 9/11, during all of the cultural tumult in the 2000s, the rise of same-sex marriage and (got) to hear his voice and (see) his activism,” said Goodman, who now lives near Columbus, Ohio.
According to Goodman and several other young evangelicals, it was Colson’s “authenticity” that developed, and kept, their interest.
Colson’s story — he became a fervent evangelical after seven months in a federal prison and was a leader for prisoners’ rights and justice reform — captivated them.
“His example of (a) redeemed life really resonates with me and probably others too,” Goodman explained. “Learning from someone who had a very interesting life before his relationship with Christ, and obviously made mistakes, but turned his life around and worked for the kingdom of God — that really resonated with me.”
More than three years after his death in April 2012, Colson’s words and worldview are resurfacing in a big way. “My Final Word,” a collection of his last writings, was published in August, just after “The Colson Way,” in which millennial and theologian Owen Strachan presents Colson as a model of “loving your neighbor.”
Millennials might not be most likely to look to someone of Colson’s age and background as a role model.
Even among young evangelicals, more contemporary religious thinkers — Karen Swallow Prior or Rachel Held Evans — might be viewed as more accessible. But Colson’s intense activism, which supporters contend advocated issues and not political parties, seems to appeal to some in a generation seeking a course correction from the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
“Because of (Colson’s) activist instincts and his desire to speak truth to power, millennials will find him interesting,” Strachan said.
That activism found its first expression in the ministry that became Prison Fellowship.
Though Colson’s time in jail was relatively brief, he was moved by the experience and by those of the men he met behind bars.
Along with Bible study and educational programs for the incarcerated, Prison Fellowship launched the Angel Tree program, which began by getting donations of toys and other items for inmates’ children. It now includes several outreaches to prisoner’s families, including summer camp and mentoring programs.
“We talk about social justice as millennials, but Colson acted out social justice,” said Chelsen Vicari, 27, who heads the Evangelical Action project at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.
Vicari, who drifted from an Assemblies of God upbringing while an undergraduate at Radford University in Blacksburg, Va., found Colson’s worldview while attending graduate school at Regent University, the school founded by Pat Robertson. A professor assigned her “How Now Shall We Live,” which Colson and co-author Nancy Pearcey published in 1999, a book that used Christian apologetics — the branch of theology concerned with defending the faith — to promote a Bible-based worldview.
“It was no longer ‘Believe this because the Bible says so,’ but because all the art, all the science around you affirms what the Bible says,” Vicari said.
Vicari, who now speaks to groups of millennial evangelicals around the country, said that while “the ones I meet in the field probably haven’t heard of Colson,” they are aware of the ministries he started. She said that when the details of Colson’s life are shared, young adults realize they can be transformed as well by a relationship with Jesus.
Eric Teetsel, 31, who heads the Manhattan Declaration, a project established by Colson in 2009 to promote Christian resistance to laws permitting abortion and same-sex marriage, met Colson once. But as a lifelong evangelical, Teetsel was familiar with the man and his message.
Although Colson is sometimes lumped in with key figures in the “Moral Majority” or so-called religious right of the 1980s, Teetsel insists Colson worked to advance issues, not political parties.
Colson was “careful that his approach to a Christian worldview and public policy always followed a biblical model and put that first,” Teetsel said.
To Anne Morse, who co-authored Colson’s “My Final Word” and spent 18 years writing with and for him, the private Colson was a merry prankster who found happiness in “doing things for others.”
Colson, she said, had a serious demeanor but could also toss water balloons off a San Antonio hotel balcony onto the city’s famed River Walk, or present a co-worker with an “award” done up in calligraphy on a tissue-paper toilet seat cover.
Morse said Colson’s discovery of the real nature of happiness should appeal to a millennial generation searching for meaning.
“This is a man who made a comfortable living as an attorney, who worked in the White House by the age of 40 and who had been honored by royalty,” Morse recalled.
But Colson “said what made him happy was going into the prison to preach the gospel to ‘the least of these.’ It was watching his autistic grandson play basketball at his special education school (alongside) other special-needs children.”
Goodman said Colson, who died on her wedding day, “had such an impact on my life” with his attitude and example.
“Millennials in general are very interested in making a difference in the world,” she said. “We would rather have a career where we feel we are making a difference in the world and impacting people than (one) making tons of money. We have a drive and hunger for service, and Chuck Colson so incredibly embodied that — he did big things.”
(Mark Kellner is a correspondent for RNS)