How Chuck Colson appeals to young evangelicals

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Prison Fellowship founder and Watergate figure Chuck Colson will be buried privately with full military honors at Quantico National Cemetery and a public service is expected later at Washington National Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Prison Fellowship

Prison Fellowship founder and Watergate figure Chuck Colson will be buried privately with full military honors at Quantico National Cemetery and a public service is expected later at Washington National Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Prison Fellowship

(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.


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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.

Millennial and theologian Owen Strachan presents Colson as a model of "loving your neighbor." Photo courtesy of Owen Strachan

Millennial and theologian Owen Strachan presents Colson as a model of “loving your neighbor.” Photo courtesy of Owen Strachan

“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.


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Millennial evangelical activist Chelsen Vicari, of the Institute for Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C., cites the late Chuck Colson as a major influence. Photo courtesy of Chelsen Vicari

Millennial evangelical activist Chelsen Vicari, of the Institute for Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C., cites the late Chuck Colson as a major influence. Photo courtesy of Chelsen Vicari

“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.


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Charles Colson inside a prison. Photo courtesy of Prison Fellowship

Charles Colson inside a prison. Photo courtesy of Prison Fellowship

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.


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Charles Colson Prison

Oxford, WI – Gordon D. Loux, president and chief executive officer of Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM) (left) and Charles W. Colson, PFM chairman, pay an Easter weekend visit to an inmate in the segregation unit at the Oxford Federal Correctional Institution in Wisconsin. 150 inmates shared in Bible training and worship with PFM volunteers and staff to mark 10 years since the organization’s first in-prison seminar. Prison Fellowship Ministries is the nation’s largest Christian outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families. Colson has returned to a prison each year at Easter since his release to share the message of the hope of a new life in Christ. This was his first trip into a prison since stomach surgery in January. RNS photo archive/David Singer

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)

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  • So, one of the architects of the Watergate scandals (there were actually many components to that, and Colson was in on most of them) is supposed to be a “role model”? How does that work, exactly? And why should I be impressed with anyone who views Colson as a “role model”?

    Oh, I get it. He became a “Christian.” Therefore the man magically became a walking saint. Because, after all, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” Thus, everyone is required now to slaver over the guy and conveniently forget his criminality. Woops. I forgot that rule. How silly of me! Must have happened because I’m a cold-hearted, cynical, godless agnostic heathen and just don’t get all that sacred stuff that all the dutiful Christians inherently understand.

  • ScottN

    Hi PsiCop,

    I think the case with Colson is that he turned his life around. During his time in prison, he had a life-changing experience and never went back to his old ways. He did what he did during Watergate, but after he got out of prison, he devoted the rest of his life to sharing the Gospel. (At least that’s how I understand it.) In case it matters, I’m a Baha’i and not an evangelical Christian.

    ScottN

  • Patrick McBurney

    Well, yes. Colson, is a role model. I am an attorney, who has worked on political campaigns. But, I don’t strive to be like Colson the lawyer, or political operative. But, I strive to be like Colson the Christian. A man who came to understand that God exists, and calls us to seek a relationship with him. It is that relationship which transforms, and causes us to change how we see and understand the world. Which when that truly happens causes to us to be transformed. So pre-1975 Colson is a different person than post-1975 Colson. Because of his encounter with God.

    When I was nineteen, I told God that I did not see the point in trying to live a biblical life, unless he was real. Not just intellectually (i.e. God Exists Cosmologically, Telelogically, etc..), but real to me. God answered that prayer and it changed my life. Without faith it is impossible to please God, you must believe that he exists, and that he rewards those who seek him. Good luck to you.

  • Re: “During his time in prison, he had a life-changing experience and never went back to his old ways.”

    Had his “life changing experience” made him (say) a Hindu, would people be trying to saint him? Would the same have happened if he’d become a Muslim, or a Baha’i, or a Wiccan, or something else? I suggest it wouldn’t have. What happened … and it’s not a new story at all … is that he started talking “Christian” and all the other Christians swallowed his con, hook line and sinker.

  • Re: “So pre-1975 Colson is a different person than post-1975 Colson. Because of his encounter with God.”

    And as I asked above (http://religionnews.com/2015/12/24/chuck-colsons-surprising-staying-power-appeals-young-evangelicals/#comment-4836788) would you have said this, had his “encounter with God” made him a Hindu instead of a Christian? Or a Muslim, Baha’i, or Wiccan?

    Why do I think that wouldn’t be the case? Why do I think you’re religiously selective about which heroes you adore?

    Re: “Without faith it is impossible to please God …”

    Why should I care about that? Why would an omnipotent, omniscient, infinite being need mortals (or any other kind of being) to “please” him/her/it? Why would such a being not already be fully self-sufficient?