INTERVIEW by James M. Kushiner
Prison Fellowship Founder Charles Colson’s Final Mission for Christian Faith & Culture
Charles (Chuck) Colson, former White House aide to President Richard Nixon, pled guilty to obstruction of justice in Watergate-related charges and spent seven months in Alabama’s Maxwell Prison, entering in 1974 as a new Christian. He founded Prison Fellowship in 1976. It has become the world’s largest outreach ministry to prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families. In 1993 Colson was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, donating the $1 million prize to Prison Fellowship. He has written over 30 books, including his autobiographical Born Again (1976) and How Now Shall We Live? (co-authored with Nancy Pearcey, 1999). In 1991 he launched BreakPoint, a daily radio commentary, now aired on 1,300 stations in the U.S. In 2009 he, Robert George, and Timothy George spearheaded the Manhattan Declaration on life, marriage, and religious liberty, which has collected over a half-million signatures. More recently, he has founded the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview.
Touchstone Executive Editor James Kushiner interviewed Charles Colson after he and Robert P. George received the Edwin Meese III Originalism & Religious Liberty Award from the Alliance Defense Fund at a luncheon on October 25, 2011, in Washington, D.C.
James M. Kushiner (JMK): I first wrote about you in 1988, then interviewed you in 1998 for Touchstone. It’s now 14 years later, and I have continued to follow the work of Prison Fellowship. You’ve been involved with prison ministry for over 35 years. What has your experience of meeting thousands of prisoners taught you about society and human needs? Could you single out any particular lessons?
Charles Colson (CC): Yes, something that I said earlier today because it is so important: everybody has a need to be treated with dignity, because it goes to the essence of their humanity. They were made in the image of God. I find people in prison—this has been a universal truth—they feel like that dignity has been stripped away, that they’re not being treated as being fully human. So, you’ve got to punish them—you’ve got to do something to punish people when they break the law—but don’t do it such a way that you dehumanize that person, because that will be the hardest thing for him to handle, and it will impede his successful transition back into society.
The second human need is family, because you find people in prison—women especially—just agonizing over their kids. I find this in big, tough convicts behind bars, tattooed all over. I think of one guy in particular in Indiana—I was walking by his cell and he said, “Are you that guy that does Angel Tree [Christmas gift program for children of prisoners]?” I said, “Yeah.” He’s a big, tough dude, and I started to walk over towards the bars of his cell and as I got closer and closer, he started sobbing. He said, “You’re the one who took care of my kids’ Christmas.” They agonize for family, and the separation from family hurts.
The third thing is the chief cause of the increase in prison population—tenfold since I got out of prison—and that is the breakdown of the family, the lack of moral training during the morally formative years. So if there is one human need that stands out, out of everything I have experienced in prison ministry, it is the desperate need for families to stay together and create an environment in which character can be learned and experienced, and virtue can be taught and absorbed. Character can’t be taught like arithmetic; character has to be learned by example. That’s how someone who is in his morally formative years learns—in a family environment. [James Q.] Wilson and [Richard J.] Hernstein say that this lack of moral training within the family is the chief cause of crime. Those formative years are from age five to ten or twelve. After that, you play catch-up.
Legalities & Inmates
JMK: Prisons are full in part because of illegal drug trafficking. Wouldn’t the legalizing of drugs, say marijuana, mitigate the situation and help fix that?
CC: Certainly. You can legalize murder, and you’ll get rid of all the death rows. I mean, the law is the best moral teacher. And the minute you say something is okay in the law, you are saying it’s morally okay. It’s not okay morally for people to get stoned.
I would have been a prohibitionist back in the Prohibition era—not that I’m a prude about drinking, and it’s certainly not condemned biblically—obviously it isn’t, although a lot of people say it is. But the social consequences (George Will wrote about this) of people reporting to work when they were under the influence of alcohol were huge. People were having terrible accidents, cutting off arms; the tavern trade was spreading venereal disease at a time when we didn’t have a cure for it. The social ills were so serious that there was an effort to outlaw drinking, which eventually had to be cut back.
It’s interesting, however, that not until five years ago did the level of alcohol consumption per capita reach pre-Prohibition levels! So for many years it worked; there was a stigma attached to it as a result of Prohibition.
JMK: I guess I am a little surprised that you would have favored Prohibition back then.
CC: Yes, because the social consequences were so great. It was no longer merely a personal choice. Now it becomes the business of the state because you are interfering with workplace and productivity, public safety, and disease. The same thing applies to drugs—absolutely. It’s a parallel. You can say that marijuana is not that addictive, not that dangerous. Neither is wine or beer, but once you start on one, you’re going to end up on another one.
JMK: A person drinking a glass of beer or wine is not doing the same thing as a person smoking a joint to get stoned. If you are drinking a glass of wine, you don’t necessarily want to get drunk.
CC: There are flaws in your analogy. The critical question is, does the particular practice undermine the common good of a society? If it does, then it’s legitimate for that society to outlaw it. I think that’s the case with drugs, which are most addictive. I’ve seen the consequences of people addicted to drugs, I’ve the seen the consequences of people not addicted but just craving it—and the bizarre things they will do to get it.
Nicotine is an addiction—I was a smoker for many years. Alcohol can be an addiction—I wasn’t addicted, but I drank a lot. So I’m certainly not prudish about this, but I just think in the area of drugs, we shouldn’t cross that divide. If you want to see the consequences of it, go to Holland, or to Needle Park in Zurich.
JMK: Or Yemen? Its population spends nearly ten percent of its income on qat [a mild narcotic], and one-quarter of usable working hours are spent chewing qat leaves.
JMK: I have heard it said by respected Christians that the culture war is a lost cause. Abortion and same-sex marriage are outgrowths of a lack of belief in the gospel. So we should stop fighting these battles and deal with individuals. Is it possible for people who care nothing for Jesus or are hostile to religion to behave according to a moral code in the first place?
CC: When I hear that, I smell smoke, coming right from the pit of hell! That’s exactly what Satan would like us to believe—that there’s no hope. It is a denial of the sovereignty of God. I think it’s blasphemy. It’s really saying God can’t change the world if he wants to, so why don’t we just give up, and all enjoy our faith. I get very impatient with that answer. You hear it from a lot of leading pastors.
JMK: Some might say, “We can change the world, but not the institutions. We can change individuals by the power of the gospel and that will change the world. So we’re not denying the sovereignty of God . . .”
CC: Yes, they are. Because God may use your action as a catalyst for something he wants to do, to change a situation that you have encountered. So what you’re doing is pacifism. It’s pacifism to say I don’t have to do anything because God will take care of it.
JMK: I have encountered this “quietism” from Evangelicals, but I’ve also heard the sentiment from Orthodox and Catholics as well.
CC: It’s despair; it’s coming from despair. Look at John Stott’s article in Christianity Today this month [October 20, 2011]. It was taken from a sermon he gave a while ago. It’s absolutely brilliant. He deals with this very question. A book [Heavenly Participation] by Hans Boersma, who teaches at Regent College, has a great insight on the meaning of the Logos. When you understand the meaning of the Logos, you realize it encompasses all energy that animates everything in the universe. Now how can you say I’m not going to be engaged in things around me? It’s the very nature of Christ to be engaged. We are reductionist thinkers as Christians; we want to bring the gospel down to some little thing that we can manage ourselves, and how it affects us.
JMK: How do we engage the culture as Christians without having a strong, vibrant, common culture ourselves? Christian culture within the church has become diluted, fragmented. It seems that we have less Christian culture today with which to engage the culture. Does this matter?
CC: I have thought about this a lot. What you see in history is that there has never been an awakening in society without a revival in the church first. Because if the church doesn’t revive itself, if it doesn’t go back to its basic core teachings, if it doesn’t start to practice holiness and holy living, it’s not going to change anybody.
So, in one sense, people say you’re wasting your time engaging the culture because you should be just making disciples. In one sense, there’s a grain of truth to that, and that is, if we don’t get serious about knowing what we believe, why we believe it, and why it matters, we can’t possibly persuade anybody else. And if we are not practicing it ourselves, what have we got to give people?
However, having said that, the fate of the church is hanging in the balance. There are a lot of good churches where people are engaging the culture. We just hired a new CEO at Prison Fellowship—he has been a pastor for many years, and he has a heart for the church. His church engaged the community and took care of inmates, street people. He understood that you cannot just sit in your own cocoon, practicing a moral, therapeutic Deism. You have to be living the faith and living it faithfully, and practicing it in your own habits before you’ve got anything you can give anybody.
What you ask about is a weakness, but I say that the church is not lost yet. In fact, I think there are signs of the church coming back.
The Young & the Centurions
JMK: Where do you see those signs?
CC: In some of these young people, like we saw earlier today [at the Alliance Defense Fund award luncheon]. A thousand of them have gone through the ADF’s Blackstone Fellowship training. Robby George is turning out bright students regularly. Different congregations are doing great things with young people.
JMK: You’ve also started up a ministry out of Prison Fellowship called Centurions. Do you find the word “centurion”—an ancient military word—a little off-putting in today’s culture, which isn’t fond of military terms or, to get to the point, the idea of “culture wars”?
CC: I am not worried about anything off-putting to the culture. “Centurions” is a word that we pulled out of the hat when we were doing it about eight and a half years ago. We were doing it as a trial, and “Centurions” seemed to work, meaning those trusted assistants who could do battle. We thought it was a pretty clever name, actually, and everybody sort of glommed onto it. It was only two years later that I found out that Mussolini had named his brown shirts Centurions!
Centurions is a wonderful program. We’re in our eighth class. It’s for serious students. We just saw one of them at the luncheon today, John Murray, who is headmaster of the Fourth Presbyterian School, a Christ-centered college preparatory school here in D.C. He has written six op-ed pieces for the Wall Street Journal. He is gifted and he is teaching biblical worldview. He has taught worldview at church retreats the last two years.
John is one of 700 graduates, and probably half of them are fully engaged. The Centurion program’s aim is to equip people to think Christianly and to defend those beliefs, in how they live and in their day-to-day conversations and in opportunities where their sphere of influence is.
JMK: What would some of their primary activities be? Are they mostly writing? Are they teaching?
CC: Many are already teachers when they come. Many of them are writing. Many of them are already very active, engaged laypeople when they come to us. We don’t get people who aren’t already engaged. It requires a pretty serious time commitment. We tell people that to do justice to the program, you have to do 20 hours a week. They’re on the website and on the Internet exchanging with each other all the time—it’s a closed website where they can communicate with other Centurions. They get a lot of teaching during the year. So it’s a very serious program. And they’re teaching biblical worldview in churches, in businesses.
JMK: Do they teach business ethics?
CC: Yes. The worldview part is fundamental teaching on the four fundamental questions every human being asks: Where did I come from? Why is there sin and evil and suffering? Is there a way out? What’s my purpose in life? It tries to work from that grid and give people a very basic understanding.
The ethics series we’ve come out with, “Doing the Right Thing,” is an extension of this, because it is taking natural law, in common grace terms, and presenting a case for the restoration of ethics, the knowability of truth, the transformation of the personality, how character is cultivated, how conscience is informed—all these things—in a six-part DVD series, including a part on business, another on medicine, another on international relations. So it’s a very serious effort to give an intellectual response to the prevailing culture. Then, we commission Centurions; we don’t “graduate” them. So the study program is just the first part of a longer lifetime approach to engaging the culture.
JMK: You can teach by precept, by logic, by proposition, but also by personal example and narrative. When a Centurion is commissioned, how does he also exemplify the precepts?
CC: Some want to get involved in direct ministry, and that’s great. Some get directly involved in Prison Fellowship. But I would say the majority of them intend to be teachers. The demonstration side of what we preach is Prison Fellowship. We like to say that Prison Fellowship makes the invisible Kingdom visible.
JMK: Thank you, Chuck. I appreciate your time and catching up with you. And congratulations on the award for Originalism & Religious Liberty.
CC: Thank you, Jim. •
Mr. Colson’s last public appearance was at the Wilberforce Weekend at the end of March, along with colleagues Timothy George and Robert P. George. As of press time, Colson, 80, who underwent emergency surgery on March 31, had reportedly taken a turn for the worse. A spokesman for Colson said, “As Chuck would say, ‘Remain at your posts and do your duty—for the glory of God and his Kingdom.’”
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“The Centurion” first appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.