The man who once said he would walk over his grandmother to get Richard Nixon elected died last Saturday at the age of 80. In the obituaries that appeared in media everywhere, Chuck Colson had all but beatification bestowed on him for his striking religious conversion after spending seven months in prison for his Watergate crimes – coordinating the campaign to discredit one of Nixon’s perceived enemies. The man was Daniel Ellsberg, who stole the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and turned them over to the New York Times, which published them.
It is certainly true that Colson did much good in the last half of his life. His Prison Fellowship Ministries was devoted to the lives of the incarcerated – no mean task in the nation that imprisons more people than any other nation in the world. Colson spoke on behalf of prisoners’ rights whenever he could, but mostly he worked to save their lives by converting them to Christianity.
Call that important, selfless work, for sure. But also note that Colson apparently never tried to help prisoners improve their lives by being good Jews, Muslims, or members of any other faith.
Colson’s personal approach to personal truth was rarely remarked upon, or critiqued, in the obituaries. This may be because we are not supposed to talk ill of the dead – but more likely the silence results from the fact that too many of us are now cowed by the hard Christian right, no matter how small and extreme it is.
A broader truth would go like this: if you want to know why your country is now in the thrall of this craziness that threatens to shatter our politics and divide us one against the other, look no further than Chuck Colson. He was one of the nation’s first important leaders of the evangelical movement after he got out of prison in the 1970s. And he didn’t entirely leave politics behind.
He was staunchly against abortion. He complained that secularism was taking over American life. He didn’t believe in Darwinism. He believed that the greatest truth was “revealed truth.” As for those of us who didn’t agree, we were apparently blind, befuddled or, egad, secularists!
Colson was, despite last week’s benedictions, a hard man to figure.
In 2009, he told Time that “Jesus would have seen the Republican and Democratic parties like the money changers in the temple.” A year later, he was going on like one of those wild-eyed tea-partyers who keep John Boehner up at night.
On his website, as a part of a video series dramatically called “Two Minute Warning,” Colson railed against the Obama health care plan, then before Congress. Without mentioning the word “mandate,” he said Christians are opposed to “involuntary collectivism.’
Could a charge that Obama was a socialist be far behind?
No, Colson didn’t mention it. Instead, he said it was more important to protect the rights of the individual than to do “the greatest good for the greatest number.”
Now, it’s dangerous to rely on the Bible for evidence in an argument, but if Colson could do it, so can anybody else.
The Bible contains a story in which Jesus miraculously feeds a multitude from just a few loaves and fishes. To borrow a phrase, what would Colson and his political cohorts do? Tell the hungry they were on their own and to go buy a fishing rod?
Heaven help us.
Mary Jo Melone, former columnist with the Tampa Bay Times, is a writer in Tampa.
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