Every obituary of Chuck Colson that I read in the first hours after his death began with a phrase like “Watergate felon,” before moving on to Colson’s post-Nixonian accomplishments as the founder of Prison Fellowship. Chuck would have understood; he knew how the game was played. Yet from his present station, I expect that Charles W. Colson is enjoying a last laugh. For his enduring impact on American public life had nothing to do with Watergate — except that Watergate drove him out of “politics,” as conventionally understood, and opened up possibilities for him to have a truly historic effect on America.
Chuck Colson did not invent the evangelical-Catholic alliance that is one of the most potent cultural forces in 21st-century American politics; but he legitimated it for vast numbers of evangelicals who were not altogether sure, 20-some years ago, that Catholics were their brothers and sisters in Christ. In that respect, Colson’s ecumenism — his absolute commitment to the reconciliation in truth of those divided by the Reformation — was his greatest contribution to the future of the country he loved. For if America is to undergo, in Lincoln’s phrase, a “new birth of freedom,” it will be because the evangelical-Catholic co-belligerency in the American Culture War will have effectively proposed, and embodied, one of America’s founding ideas: that freedom must be tethered to moral truth and ordered to goodness and virtue.
— George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
It is starkly telling that the Wikipedia passage that addresses Chuck Colson’s conversion to Christianity frames it by commenting that “some believe” his conversion “sparked a radical life change that lasted the remainder of his life.” This one phrase encompasses some of the most important hallmarks of Colson’s life: the turning point in his life; the secular skepticism; and the persistence of his faith. The conversion of President Nixon’s hatchet man was a radical change indeed. But it was radical, not just because the change for Colson himself was so dramatic — his personal transformation brought radical change to the larger world through his vision for ministry. The same depth of intellect and determination that he had used to serve a president, Colson used to serve the desperate and the despised. He knew what it was to be scorned and reviled — as the snide phrase “some believe” bears witness. He remained a lightning rod for critics throughout his life. And yet, he never gave them cheap and easy fodder. He ran the race to the very end, faithful to his family, to his calling, and to his God.