The Thug Turned Martyr

I didn’t comment initially on the death of Chuck Colson because I didn’t quite have the time to write an assessment commensurate with this man’s significance. Fortunately, Sarah Posner has done it for us in a solid profile at Salon, making it clear that Colson’s greatest impact was at the very end of his long life–and God help us, well beyond it.

Colson was one of the drafters of the 2009 manifesto, the Manhattan Declaration, which, in hindsight, forecast how the religious right would react to the HHS mandate. Assembled by what was billed as an ecumenical group of evangelicals, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, it was released at the height of the legislative showdown over the Stupak Amendment, offered at the behest of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to eliminate nonexistent federal funding of abortions. The signatories — today they number over half a million — pledged unspecified civil disobedience in response to laws they assert violate religious liberty, the “sanctity of life” and “the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.”

In the Manhattan Declaration, victims are not women who can’t access healthcare or a gay couple that can’t get married. The victims are Christians, and their freedom from laws not crafted from a biblical worldview.

Colson was also co-founder, along with Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (another recently deceased religious figure whose vast influence just keeps increasing) of Catholics and Evangelicals Together, a group that has taken the beachhead of cooperation on the abortion issue and widened it into an alliance encompassing its founders’ unusually aggressive approach to the meaning of “religious liberty.” Some may recall that Neuhaus caused a very big stir in 1996 by suggesting that a “regime” that legalized abortion and same-sex relationships might well forfeit any obligation of obedience from godly citizens. It’s no accident that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ recent “statement on religious liberty” approvingly cites a similar manifesto from CET.

Indeed, the agitation surrounding the contraception coverage mandate clearly reflects the bizarre analogy, indirectly suggested by Neuhaus and directly argued by Colson, that this new conservative religious coalition is like the German Confessing Church, simply declaring its allegience to Christ in the face of totalitarian persecution. Notes Posner:

Colson had the audacity to compare America to Nazi Germany, and to urge his listeners to read Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” which he called “prophetic in its application to today … The destruction of civil society has always been prelude to a totalitarian government.”

To people unfamiliar with or uninterested in Colson’s enormous influence in recent years, he’ll always be remembered as the ugly face of Watergate, the proud thug who went to prison for his misdeeds and there found faith, subsequently establishing a prison ministry. But that was simply the prologue to Colson’s true calling as a self-proclaimed martyr leading others to demand theocracy in the name of liberty.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.