This Charles Colson, the one whose name is commonly preceded by “hatchet man,” is a thing of the past, according to Colson’s friends, supporters, and now his biographer, Jonathan Aitken. Perhaps the most famous born-again Republican after George W. Bush, Colson has spent the three decades since Watergate working with Prison Fellowship, a penal reform organization he founded, and burnishing his credentials as an evangelical leader. He has become, in the words of Peggy Noonan, one of the “heroes of Watergate.” Indeed, Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal just days after the disclosure of Felt’s identity as Deep Throat that Colson “has devoted his life to helping prisoners and their families. He paid the price, told the truth, blamed no one but himself, and turned his shame into something helpful.”
And as if on cue, along comes an authorized biography, Charles W. Colson: A Life Redeemed. The former Watergate felon tapped Aitken to write this account of his metamorphosis from White House hack to man of God, and it is an inspired choice. Aitken himself is a disgraced former Tory cabinet minister who went to prison in 1999 for perjury in a bungled libel suit against The Guardian, which had run a series of articles detailing his illicit dealings with Saudi arms traders. He met Colson in the course of writing a glowing biography of Nixon, and Colson ministered to Aitken during his seven-month prison term. Under Colson’s influence, Aitken became, as they say in Britain, a “Christer” and a board member of Colson’s Prison Fellowship International.
Just before he launches into a description of Colson as “America’s best-known Christian leader after Billy Graham,” Aitken assures readers that his book “is not religious, political, or personal hagiography.” But it’s hard to know what else to call a book that hyperbolizes up an impressive enough conversion tale, selectively presents key characters, omits inopportune facts, and glosses over the subject’s more politically incorrect views. The Charles Colson who appears in Aitken’s narrative is a stock character, a humble and forgiving man who is too busy helping prisoners to be embroiled in the hot-button issues of the day. The evidence to the contrary makes it impossible to dismiss this adoring portrait as merely neglectful. Something else is going on. In Charles W. Colson, Aitken and Colson–the two veteran con-men–have conspired to commit yet another cover-up.
No conversion story can be told without first recounting the wretched deeds and failings of the fallen sinner. With Colson, it’s a rich lode. There was the time in 1972, for example, when Colson arranged for a Gary Hart impersonator to place a rude phone call to former AFL-CIO chief George Meany (Hart was then George McGovern’s campaign manager), resulting in the union’s refusal to endorse the Democratic nominee. Then there’s the story of how Colson diverted $8,000 of Nixon campaign funds to purchase copies of a book that purported to document the “anti-Nixon bias” of the television networks during the 1968 campaign. (Through these bulk sales, the book made The New York Times’ bestseller list.) And who can forget the tale of how Colson masterminded the break-in of the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, a crime which would eventually land him in prison?
After the sins must come the change of heart. Colson’s come-to-Jesus moment occurred with the Watergate trial at its height. In the summer of 1973, with the prosecution preparing its case against him and the press corps circling like sharks, Colson knelt on the floor of the office of Raytheon CEO Tom Phillips. While Colson fought back tears in an embarrassed state of silence, Phillips prayed for him and for his soul. As he drove home, “tears of relief” finally burst from his eyes and, Colson tells Aitken, he felt the spirit of Christ for the first time. Colson was eventually convicted for his part in the Ellsberg break-in; during his seven months in prison, he studied the Bible obsessively.
Upon his release, Colson founded Prison Fellowship, now a multimillion-dollar international organization and the largest prison ministry in the world. With the help of nearly 50,000 volunteers, Prison Fellowship runs Bible studies for more than 150,000 prisoners and matches up 21,000 of them with penpals. Its Angel Tree program sends inmates’ children to summer camp and provides them with Christmas gifts. Over the years, Colson has logged countless hours ministering to prisoners, sometimes praying with forgotten inmates in dank solitary-confinement chambers. Some studies suggest Colson’s methods reduce recidivism rates. And the former combative partisan has been a peacemaker as well, quelling the occasional prison riot and playing host to former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver and ex-Ku Klux Klan bomb-maker Tommy Tarrants at a prayer dinner.
If that were the extent of Colson’s tale, it would indeed be remarkable. But Aitken does not tell the whole story. The Colson he portrays emerges from prison nearly apolitical, struggling only “to understand what exactly God was calling him to do.” In his search for answers, Colson sought guidance from emerging leaders in the insular evangelical subculture, men like Doug Coe, Francis Schaeffer, and “Jim” Dobson. Their names are dropped into Colson’s story without any background information, suggesting not the slightest hint that Colson had integrated himself into an incipient political movement now known as the Christian right.
These men are not your normal man’s Bible study partners. Aitken notes that it was Coe who first introduced Colson to evangelical culture through a group with the friendly name of Fellowship House. But he neglects to mention that Fellowship House is a front for “The Family,” a highly secretive, all-male cadre of largely right-wing congressmen, industry chieftains, and members of the military. Jeffrey Sharlet, a journalist who infiltrated The Family for Harper’s magazine, has described the goal of The Family to be “an ‘invisible’ world organization led by Christ.” Similarly, while Aitken writes about the influence of theologian Francis Schaeffer on Colson, he fails to explain that Schaeffer was the chief proponent of a theology known as “Dominionism,” which commands Christians to put the United States under the control of biblical law, not the Constitution.
Perhaps the most egregious of Aitken’s omissions involves James Dobson, who appears simply as a nice man who helped Colson get his broadcast career off the ground. Absent is any mention of the evangelical power broker who spoke alongside Colson during the summer of 2004 at a series of stadium rallies against gay marriage and John Kerry. Missing as well is the leader who helped organize last April’s Justice Sunday, a national broadcast in support of President Bush’s stalled judicial nominees. At the height of the event, Dobson lashed out at the Roe v. Wade decision, comparing it to the Nazi genocide of Jews: “That has now resulted in 44 million deaths, the biggest holocaust in world history, that came out of the Supreme Court.”
It might not be worth mentioning the political and religious agendas of these men if the born-again Colson dedicated his life purely to hands-on ministry and stayed above politics. However, while you would not know it from reading Aitken’s treatment, Colson is still mired in the thick of conservative politics.
It wouldn’t have been difficult for Aitken to find examples of Colson sharing his strongly held–and often quite extreme–political views. In a recent Beliefnet commentary, Colson suggested that homosexuals are “lower than the animal species.” The week before Justice Sunday, Colson declared on his Breakpoint radio commentary (carried to millions of listeners by Christian broadcasting networks) that “Christians have a right–indeed a duty–to call their senators and tell them that what is going on is outrageous.” And perhaps most disturbingly, during a 1994 radio commentary on the killing of David Gunn, an abortion doctor, by Michael Griffin of Operation Rescue, Colson remarked: “It is a sad day indeed when our national leaders can’t tell the difference between a martyr and a murderer.”
Some of Colson’s controversial political positions are even directly related to his work with Prison Fellowship. In a 1997 essay for Christianity Today, Colson argued in favor of “zero tolerance for any violation of public order,” advocating draconian punishment for crimes like loitering. Yet only in passing does Aitken mention that Colson has pressured state legislatures to pass “zero-tolerance” laws, and he doesn’t explain what those are or why Colson favors them. Similarly, Aitken’s portrayal of Colson visiting Mississippi’s death row in 2001 “to bring a message of faith, hope, and love to inmates” avoids discussion of Colson’s ardent support for the death penalty.
Finally, Aitken makes only brief mention of Colson’s work as an informal advisor to Karl Rove on evangelical issues: “Colson was having a considerable influence in a wholly Christian direction on several of the policies of President George W. Bush.” And while he notes that Prison Fellowship has received federal grants through Bush’s new faith-based initiative, nowhere does Aitken report precisely how much federal money Colson has received in subsidies from the current administration.
Colson’s makeover is not without precedent. The next generation of evangelical conservatives has studiously promoted their interest in issues traditionally associated with liberals and whitewashed their less palatable stances as they begin to take the movement’s reins. Ted Haggard, the fresh-faced director of the National Association of Evangelicals, barnstorms around the country stressing the need for “creation care” of the environment. Rick Warren, the new golden boy who has been written up in New York Times columns and New Yorker profiles, is eager to talk about everything except homosexuality and abortion. Even Pat Robertson has gotten into the act, appearing alongside social liberals like Bono and Ellen DeGeneres in a campaign to stop global poverty. The new evangelical considers it gauche to answer questions about “judicial tyranny,” the “homosexual agenda,” or the New World Order. They’re focused on poverty and the environment, don’t you know?
Inspired by the Christian right’s campaign to mainstream itself, Aitken’s book is an impressive piece of public relations. Aitken uses the tale of repentance and redemption to render Colson beyond reproach, describing his subject as no more than “the gentle, forgiveness-seeking Colson.” Yet he is ultimately stymied in this effort by Colson himself. Upon the disclosure that Mark Felt was Deep Throat, Colson instantly reverted to old form. “When any president has to worry whether the deputy director of the FBI is sneaking around in dark corridors peddling information in the middle of the night, he’s in trouble,” Colson told The Washington Post. He later complained to CNN that Felt’s leaks to Woodward were “demeaning” and “terribly disappointing.” The more accurate story of Colson is less a life redeemed than a life reframed. Colson no longer attacks individuals in the service of Nixon; he attacks them in the name of God.