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Chuck Colson
 

R&L: What intellectual tools do Christians need to effectively protect the truth in a post-Christian world, and do Christians have those tools?

Colson: The first part of the answer is more complicated, so I'll answer the second part first. First, no, Christians do not have the tools today. Most people don't realize what a central issue this is. And Schaeffer used to preach about this a generation ago, and he would say, “The issue is truth! Flaming truth! True truth!” And people listened to him. Typical of all evangelical churches, they say, “Oh, that's great he's doing that,” but nobody takes him seriously. Through the Centurions Program, I'm trying to teach people how to teach truth. I think it can be done, and I think Christians have to learn, but it takes some rigorous effort on our part to do it. But we can learn the ways in which truth is knowable. It's knowable through nature, through conscious reason, and through the Bible. I think we have to learn how to apply this, and it's not hard. First it requires recognition of the problem, and then some discipline. I think we can do it. That's what I'm devoting myself to with the Centurions. We've got one hundred senior adults every year. It's terrific and the results have been very successful so far. Centurions go through it, they get educated in this, and then they go out and they have to teach it to other people. So the more they teach it to other people, the more they learn it.

What has Christianity given to society that is most often overlooked by Christianity's critics?

I think the critics of Christianity are looking at the modern ideas of liberalism and believing that freedom from all restraints and the desire to do anything you desire to do is sort of the summum bonum, the element of virtue and life. And what they're missing is that that undermines the very protection they themselves enjoy the most. It is like somebody sitting on a branch and sawing off the branch they're sitting on. The ideas that you can determine for yourself the meaning of life, that there are no restraints, that you have absolute autonomous control over yourself, that all of the world revolves around you, [these ideas] leave you vulnerable to all the various scientific assaults upon human life, whether it's abortion, assisted suicide, genetic engineering, or cloning. You yourself become vulnerable. The price of your freedom is human vulnerability. I don't think the postmodernist has figured out yet how self-refuting his own belief system is.

I was with a bunch of newspaper reporters once and the publisher was bragging he had taken the Ten Commandments off the classroom walls in his city. And then about five minutes later he is complaining about all the stealing in the classrooms. It's like putting a sign up, “Someone Steal!” I'm very optimistic that postmodernism is running its course because it's not intellectually sustainable and it's build on internal contradictions that will ultimately cause it to crumble.

So on one side Christians have this secular humanism and postmodern thought. On the other side is Islamic fundamentalism. In this conflict of cultures, what hope is there to be reasonable with people who have no interest in being reasonable?

Well, I don't think we do. I don't think there's any real basis for dialogue, at the moment, with Islamo-fascism, as opposed to, say, moderate Muslims. What Pope Benedict XVI was trying to point out to them [in his Regensburg address] was that their blind reliance on their faith, being unwilling to subject it to the examination of reason or self criticism, makes it impossible for them to deal with us. But I think that he was also saying that in the West, we've lost our religious understanding. We can't make heads or tails out of what's going on in their minds. So what our job is as Christians, it seems to me, is to reinvigorate the moral structure of our own society so that we are able to understand spiritual truths and able to bring in the culture-building, life-affirming aspects of Christianity. At the same time, we help our cohorts in the culture to understand why Islamo-fascism is so dangerous. You're not going to talk these people out of what they're doing because they are blindly following an ideology. They are blindly following their god, or what they perceive to be their god, without subjecting that to reason. I thought Benedict made that point so powerfully, a real wake up call to the West. But I don't believe we're ever going to find ourselves negotiating with the Osama Bin Ladens or others of his ilk in the Islamic world. We're just not. It's not going to happen. What you're going to do is undercut them militarily by denying them places to operate, number one. And number two, it's a long, slow process, but we've got to build democratic searches in the Islamic world.

 

There has recently been much [hullabaloo] over calls by some to ban the "nikab," the Islamic head and face covering for women. To what extent ought governments regulate religious expression?

I don't think they can regulate religious expression. We have this problem with the prison chaplains, imams, who are radical. What they can do is assure us that the violent wing of radical Islam is not being perpetrated, is not being spread through the schools. The Wahhabi influence in Saudi Arabia is providing most of the textbooks for Muslim schools in America. This is the kind of thing we should be stopping. I'm not so worried about the headdress, anymore than the Mennonites wearing their clothes. That doesn't worry me. What worries me is what they are teaching.

What are the dos and don'ts for Christians when they're engaged in public policy?

I wrote a book called, Kingdoms in Conflict twenty years ago that is just about to be reissued by Zondervan next year. We updated it. And it goes through, in almost five hundred pages, the dos and don'ts. But I can give you a quick summary, and that is that Christians must be engaged in politics because it is one of the realms of life over which God, who is sovereign, claims his authority. We've got to be instruments of justice and righteousness. We have to deal with moral issues. We are not, as Christian leaders at least, to make partisan endorsements, nor should we ever allow ourselves to be in the hip pocket of one political party. It's unfortunate [that] in the age in which we live, the erosion of truth has led to the rise of ideologies in its place. So you have competing ideologies, Republican and Democrat. And the Republican ideology has embraced the values voters. So anybody who is really voting a social issue agenda is going to likely vote Republican. But that's different than considering ourselves [to be] the religious adjunct of a party. That's a terrible mistake. And I think the Democrats are recognizing this and trying desperately to figure out ways to appeal to the religious voters, which they ought to. But they can't get by their personal litmus test. That's where they're having their troubles. So I'm hoping that's going to change some day. I think it would be a healthy thing for the country. But I've never made a partisan endorsement, and I won't. But I have certainly spoken out on issues and fought for some of the human rights as a citizen and will continue to.


© Eray Haciosmanoglu. Image from BigStockPhoto.com

The Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) in Istanbul, Turkey, was converted into a mosque after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, and then into a public museum in 1935.

There are those who are unaware or even suspicious of groups like Evangelicals and Catholics Together, in which you have played a key role. What hope exists to unite Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians?

Education. I think that the more that people realize the central tenants of our beliefs, and the more groups like mine and others can engage in extended theological reflection and conversation, the more we will diminish the divisions. We're not going to change. You're not going to repeal the Council of Trent. It's going to take a long time for there to be genuine theological progress, although there's been some. There's been some that is quite startling, as a matter of fact. But what we can do is learn how to live with each other as brothers and sisters, learn how to cooperate together in the field, and learn how to work together in ministries like Prison Fellowship, which we do. Many of our volunteers are Catholics and Baptists and Pentecostals. We can then practice what Timothy George calls an ecumenism of the trenches. We can work together on these issues, and certainly with Islam trying to destroy us, the need for this is imperative. I am finding when I argue on those grounds, that some of the people who were vitriolic towards me ten years ago are now saying, “I guess you're right.” So I think it's going to happen. We're going to be driven to it by circumstances.

What do you say to critics who try to characterize the work of Prison Fellowship as a violation of the fabled wall of separation between church and state, who make such stark divisions between the good rehabilitative work that is actually achieved by Prison Fellowship and the proper role of the state?

I think they're totally misreading the Constitution and, as a matter of fact, much of the case law, and the will of the Congress: Congress said faith-based charities are to be able to compete on equal ground with secular when providing secular services. We differentiate very clearly in the prisons between the religious aspects and the secular. We don't force people to participate in the religious. We provide facilities for Catholics to worship and Protestants to worship and Muslims to worship. So we haven't broken any of the cardinal rules. We are being picked on because we've succeeded. We're being picked on by Barry Lynn because if we not only contend that we are witnessing truth and the conversion of these people in the prison, and then we prove it, he loses the whole game. That's why this is high stakes: the question of whether you can validate truth in social sciences is posed by us, and opposed by Barry Lind, and in the hands of the court. What do I say to him? I say to him, look, you've got the poorest of the poor. You've got 2.3 million people in American prisons. You have got 60 percent of them re-offending when they get out. You've got 600,000 a year getting out. You want to do something? Let's fix this, and we've got to work together and find cooperative ways that do not violate the law. We had very careful study of the law before we went into this. But this has much less to do with us and prisoners than it has to do with the issue of truth.


Charles Colson has been a central figure in the evangelical Christian community since he shocked the Washington establishment in 1973 by revealing his new Christian commitment in the midst of the Watergate inquiry. In later years Colson would say that because he was known primarily as Nixon’s “Hatchet Man,” the declaration that “ ’I’ve been born again and given my life to Jesus Christ’ kept the political cartoonists of America clothed and fed for a solid month.” It also gave new visibility to the emerging movement of “born-again” Christians.

In 1974 Colson entered a plea of guilty to Watergate-related charges; although not implicated in the Watergate burglary, he voluntarily pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in the Daniel Ellsberg Case, which was prosecuted in the acutely sensitive Watergate atmosphere. He entered Maxwell Federal Prison Camp in Alabama in 1974 as a new Christian and as the first member of the Nixon administration to be incarcerated for Watergate-related charges. He served seven months of a one- to three-year sentence.

Colson emerged from prison with a new mission: mobilizing the Christian church to minister to prisoners. This would become perhaps his greatest contribution to the church and the world. Although many local churches had ministered in nearby prisons for many years, most observers would affirm that Colson and Prison Fellowship truly put prison ministry on the agenda of the church in a substantial way.

Colson’s personal prison experience and his frequent ministry visits to prisons also developed in him new concerns about the efficacy of the American criminal justice system. His founding of Justice Fellowship in 1983 helped make Colson one of the nation’s most influential voices for criminal justice reform. His call for alternative punishments for non-violent offenders was often effective because Colson’s conservative credentials enabled him to line up conservative legislators in support of what had traditionally been seen as a liberal set of reforms.

That passion and sense of obligation to God’s calling and to his fellow inmates took Colson into prisons several times a year. He visited some 600 prisons in the U.S. and 40 other countries, and built a movement that at one time extended to more than 50,000 prison ministry volunteers. Often, particularly in the early days of Prison Fellowship, he was vocal in his disgust over the terrible conditions in the prisons and the need for more humane conditions and better access to religious programs.

Colson’s advocacy for prisoners’ religious rights took an additional form in the late 1990s when he and Justice Fellowship were at the forefront lobbying legislators to support the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), both nationally and state-by-state. Colson’s and Justice Fellowship’s work to bring an end to the national scourge and shame of prison rape culminated with the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003. Today, Justice Fellowship continues Colson’s commitment to advocating for reforms that respect the victims of crime, transform and reintegrate offenders, and make communities safer.

Kingdoms in Conflict, Colson’s best-selling 1987 book, was a directive to the Christian community on the proper relationships of church and state, and it positioned Colson as centrist evangelical voice for balanced Christian political activism. Although not as visible as others in the frontline battles, Colson provided counsel to many of the most evident activists and had a strong influence on Christian politicians who went to Washington in the 80s, 90s and into the new millennium.