“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Winston Churchill
“On July 9, 1974, Charles W. ‘Chuck’ Colson spent his first night in a federal prison. He had worked hard to get there.
“Raised in Massachusetts, Colson attended Brown University and George Washington University Law School. In the 1950s, he got married, was a captain n the U.S. Marines, and worked for his home state’s senior U.S. senator, Leverett Saltonstall. In the 1960s, he got divorced, remarried, built a lucrative inside-the-Beltway law firm, and became a player in national GOP politics.
“In 1969, President Richard M. Nixon made Colson, then just 37 years old, his top White House legal counsel. Colson later confessed that he was ‘ruthless in getting things done’ for Nixon, which eventually led to his conviction for obstruction of justice after the Watergate break-in. Among other infamous acts, he leaked information from confidential FBI files on antiwar activist Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame, and he fulminated about firebombing the liberal Brookings Institution.
“Nixon’s once-powerful ‘hatchet man’ was the first Watergate figure to become an incarcerated felon. But just before Colson landed behind bars, he got old-time religion. While in prison, he promised fellow inmates that he would never forget them. He made good on that promise by dedicating his life to helping prisoners and their families, improving prison conditions and working to reform penal codes. In 1975, he wrote his bestselling book, Born Again. In 1976, he founded Prison Fellowship, an international evangelical Christian ministry based in Virginia.
“Well into the 1980s, Colson’s just-before-jailhouse conversion was widely panned as a pre-emptive performance for the parole board. Many commentators mocked him and his fledgling ministry. In the 1990s, his ecumenical work with groups like Evangelicals and Catholics Together deeply upset many orthodox Protestants. And, in the 2000s, his activist opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage deeply upset many progressive Protestants, among others.
“As an urban Democrat, a Jesuit-inspired Catholic and an academic, I disagreed with Colson about many things. Differences on policy and culture issues aside, he insisted that hard science supported ‘intelligent design’ even when leading evangelical Christian scientists, like Francis Collins, former head of the international human genome project, counseled otherwise. He embraced studies touting faith-based programs but sometimes squinted past their shortcomings.
“Still, for nearly four full post-Watergate decades, Colson, who died this past Saturday at age 80, steadfastly practiced what he preached about prisons, prisoners and penal reform. Where criminal justice was concerned, he was God’s good man, not Nixon’s bad man. He gave his ministry most of his adult life and almost all of his money, including royalties on about two dozen books, speakers’ fees, and the $1 million Templeton Prize for spiritual endeavors that he won in 1993. While maintaining his Break Point radio show, he worked endless hours raising the tens of millions of dollars a year that supported the ministry’s operations.
“In the 2000s along, Colson’s Prison Fellowship mobilized more than 10,000 volunteers to work in 1,329 prisons from coast to coast and also muster nearly 15,000 volunteers each year to purchase Christmas gifts for more than 350,000 children of prisoners. Recognizing that about 700,000 prisoners are released each year, the Colson ministry created eight InnerChange Freedom Initiative prisoner re-entry programs across five states, and found jobs for about 60% of all IFI parolees.
“But Colson’s most consequential criminal-justice legacy is still in the making. He nearly single-handedly put America on a bipartisan path to zero prison growth. With another born-again ex-prisoner, former California state legislator Pat Nolan, he led the charge against states’ mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders and for the federal government’s Second Chance Act, which gives grants to nonprofit organizations that help ex-prisoners find jobs, get drug treatment, and reconnect with loved ones.
“Promoting the concept of ‘restorative justice,’ Colson godfathered into being several conservative coalitions that are now making real headway in reducing prison populations and changing penal codes in many states. For example, as documented by the Texas-based Right on Crime organization, in recent years the Lone Star State has cut crime rates while reducing its adult prison population by thousands, and the number of juveniles behind bars by more than 50%, by repealing draconian sentencing laws and increasing support for community-based corrections.
“As I recount in my book Godly Republic, in the late 1990s Colson was among those who softened and spiritualized my views on crime. Visiting prisons with him, watching him relate pastorally to prisoners, was an inspiring experience that never got old. Through his ministry, his second chance became a second chance for hundreds of thousands of others. When it came to treating incarcerated citizens, recent parolees, and all persons touched by crime, both perpetrators and victims, with Christ-like care and compassion, he was ‘ruthless.’” John J. Dilulio Jr., The Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2012, p. A15