As one of the key figures in the Watergate scandal that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency, Chuck Colson served seven months of a one-to-three-year prison sentence for his role in the cover-up. Then he spent the rest of his life heading a prison fellowship program based on his newfound Christian activism. Colson died on Saturday at 80 years old; he had suffered a brain hemorrhage earlier this month.
As news spreads of Colson’s death, his family can rest assured that his advocacy for prison reform will take equal billing with, though never entirely erase, his past as a Watergate felon.
Dubbed one of the “Watergate Seven,” Colson was a trusted confidante to the president, taking on some of the darker projects associated with Nixon, from compiling the fabled “enemies list” to leaking tidbits from the confidential FBI file of Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who had given the Pentagon papers to The New York Times. The government’s secretly compiled history of the Vietnam War was more of an embarrassment to the White House than any national-security threat, and the defamation of Ellsberg became a cudgel that was then turned on Colson.
He was 42 years old when he was indicted, his life and career seemingly cut short when a friend gave him a copy of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. The book, considered a classic, makes the case for Christianity based on moral precepts after first rigorously analyzing atheism and pantheism and then coming down on the side of faith. Colson credited the book with turning his life around. While awaiting sentencing, he joined a prayer group in what many in the media dismissed as a publicity stunt to lighten his sentence, as implausible as boozy comedian W.C. Fields coming out for the temperance union.
But Colson was serious, and during his time at Maxwell Correctional Facility in Alabama, he applied his newly found embrace of Christianity to the broader abuses he saw firsthand in the prison system. Granted a three-day furlough to attend his father’s funeral, he discovered in going through his father’s papers a shared interest in prison reform, which he took as a sign from God that this was his calling. The result was Prison Fellowship, founded in 1976, which today has a network of 50,000 volunteers who go into America’s correctional facilities on a regular basis to minister to prisoners and their families.
Colson’s arc of redemption took him to the most forgotten society in America, the more than 2 million people in prison, where the credentials that count were different from anything he’d encountered in the world of presidential politics.
Prison Fellowship proudly described its founder as the “Watergate crook.” But for the generations who have come of age since Watergate, Colson has spent many more decades on prison reform than he did creating and carrying out Nixon’s dirty tricks. Democrats who despised him and what he stood for became his biggest supporters when he took to championing social justice for prisoners. His remarkable transformation even gave rise to that classic political joke—a liberal is a conservative who’s been to prison.
Colson wrote numerous books and was honored for his humanitarian work by many groups, including the Salvation Army. In 2000 his right to vote was restored by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and in 2003 President George W. Bush invited Colson to the White House for what must have been an emotional return. Colson was there to discuss a faith-based initiative called InnerChange that had been hailed for its effectiveness in reducing recidivism for those who completed the program in Texas.
Perhaps the capstone for how differently Colson was viewed during the latter part of his life came in 1991, when he was invited as part of the distinguished-lecturer series at Harvard Business School to deliver a speech titled “The Problem of Ethics,” where in his own way he echoed C.S. Lewis in arguing that a foundation of moral absolutes is necessary for a society to survive. That belief carried him far and in directions that weren’t always predictable. He made it seem so obvious to others how they could find salvation, yet it took the near destruction of his own life before he could see the path meant for him. Colson’s story remains a cautionary tale for all those drawn to power.