Chuck Colson has died at age 80.
April 22, 2012 7:39 AM   Subscribe

Chuck Colson has died at age 80. The former "hatchet man" for President Nixon, Colson once remarked that he would "walk over his grandmother to get the president elected to a second term." After serving eight months in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal, Colson announced that he'd become a born again Christian. In 1976, he founded Prison Fellowship International to aid and evangelize prisoners and their families. He was quickly embraced by the Evangelical world, and eventually eventually became an influential figure in conservative Christian politics.
posted by verb (67 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Colson was also a co-author of the Manhattan Declaration and he actively campaigned against marriage equality and other equality issues for LGBT persons. His hate and spewn bile was a poison upon modern discourse.

I'm glad he's gone. If only his death would mean his ideas and filth would also disappear from existence like he has.
posted by hippybear at 7:49 AM on April 22, 2012 [16 favorites]

NPR in particular has a piece on Colson's death, covering the history of his Watergate and post-prison experiences, as well as controversy surrounding Prison Fellowship. While Colson advocated some traditionally liberal concepts (nonviolent criminals shouldn't be jailed, more convicts should be paroled, drug offenders should be treated rather than incarcerated, etc.), the organization was also successfully sued for pressuring prisoners to convert to Christianity by offering them better conditions. From the NPR article:
"Sadly, when he went from being Richard Nixon's hatchet man, he turned into a man who thought he was God's hatchet man," Lynn says. "Literally turning these very formidable political skills that he had in the service of very far-right religious and political agendas."
posted by verb at 7:53 AM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

This story would have had a happier ending if he'd died in a fire decades ago.

Yeah, I don't care that I disrespected a dead man. It's not like this guy had any respect for anyone his entire life, and was in a position to act on those psychotic impulses daily.

Once a bagman, always a bagman. Good riddance.
posted by clvrmnky at 7:57 AM on April 22, 2012 [12 favorites]

"He lives on as a modern model of redemption and a permanent rebuttal to the cynical claim that there are no second chances in life."

I thought it was mainly vindictive right wing fundamentalists who don't give people second chances ("lock 'em up and throw away the key.") Oh, of course, except when it's one of their own.
posted by binturong at 7:57 AM on April 22, 2012 [7 favorites]

Some people live a vile, hurtful life. Chuck Colson lived two
posted by crayz at 8:01 AM on April 22, 2012 [36 favorites]

A scumbag who reformed himself, into another type of scumbag.
posted by Splunge at 8:10 AM on April 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

I was kind of hoping it could avoid turning into a "kick-the-corpse" contest, but Colson was a polarizing figure. When I considered myself a Christian I saw him as a redemption story, and had a great deal of respect for his work with Prison Fellowship. My family always participated in Project Angeltree every year, buying Christmas presents for prisoners' families and so on.

As the years went on, and Colson's growing influence in the Christian world brought him more political influence as well, I became less convinced that he had changed in any fundamental way -- his story of redemption now seems more like the story of a canny survivor landing on his feet. Prison Fellowship became the prototypical example of a "faith-based initiative," and the organization's "convert and you'll get better treatment" arm-twisting became public knowledge.

By the time the 2000's rolled around, Colson was, as several articles pointed out, serving as a hatchet-man for conservative Christianity. He had built a public platform on his advocacy for prisoners, and was using it to stump for Republicans, attack gays, and play the culture war game. When Mark Felt (Deep Throat) died, Colson tut-tutted about the morality of being a press informant, saying that it was "dishonorable."

I can't really wrap my head around the kind of ethical and mental agility that statement requires; it's like the shoe-bomber lecturing the passengers who subdued him about the dangers of vigilantism.

Slacktivist, who's been linked a number of times on the blue, has written quite a few times about Colson and just weighed in on his death.
posted by verb at 8:17 AM on April 22, 2012 [13 favorites]

it's like the shoe-bomber lecturing the passengers who subdued him about the dangers of vigilantism.

Couldn't have said it better myself.

My sympathies go out to his family, but wow. What an utterly vile life to have led.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:25 AM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Relevant Doonesbury strips:

July 5, 1973 - Before his "conversion".

July 26, 1974 - After his "conversion".

Colson was a respected figure in my parents' religious household for his conversion and work in Prison Fellowship. I inherited that respect, even after my own apostasy, up to the point where he criticized Mark Felt - Woodward and Bernstein's Deep Throat - for his role in ending the Watergate cover-up.
posted by The Confessor at 8:26 AM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

The money quote from Fred "Slacktivist" Clark:
As “one of the leading spokespersons of evangelical Christianity in America today,” Colson helped to identify Christianity with a vicious, mean-spirited, and thoroughly dishonest culture war against women and LGBT people. He worked, passionately, to make that the core and the bedrock of American Christianity.

I don’t think that counts as living without scandal. I think that counts as being at the center of one of the worst scandals of this generation of the church.
posted by Legomancer at 8:28 AM on April 22, 2012 [13 favorites]

One of the dictionary definitions of "culture war criminal."
posted by delfin at 8:35 AM on April 22, 2012

I kept misreading the headlines on this and thinking that Chuck Close had died. Different person. Very different person.
posted by sciencegeek at 8:36 AM on April 22, 2012

My most vivid memory of Chuck Colson was, as a child, being given a copy of a comic book about him. Children have an uncanny knack for recognizing insincerity.
posted by acrasis at 8:36 AM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by learnsome at 8:37 AM on April 22, 2012

Whatever. Doesn't change what he did. Screw him.
posted by ReeMonster at 8:48 AM on April 22, 2012

posted by SpacemanStix at 8:53 AM on April 22, 2012

I'm so conflicted about this, I mean... What's the proper and dignified to mark this man's passing? I can't decide if dancing in the streets or pissing on his grave is in order. A little of both, and then brunch?
posted by xedrik at 8:53 AM on April 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've decided to become a tyrant. They're generally a long-lived, successful bunch.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:56 AM on April 22, 2012

His "contributions" to the public discourse will not be missed, to say the least.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:08 AM on April 22, 2012

Good. Fuck 'im.
posted by notsnot at 9:10 AM on April 22, 2012

Too bad Hunter Thompson's not around to write his obituary.
posted by indubitable at 9:10 AM on April 22, 2012 [7 favorites]

Too bad HST is not in hell to dick punch this asshole on arrival
posted by spicynuts at 9:33 AM on April 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

Not much love for the man Pat Buchanan called "the meanest man in politics."

As it should be.
posted by Marky at 9:38 AM on April 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

posted by shakespeherian at 9:41 AM on April 22, 2012

It’s only after many of these people have painted themselves into irrevocable moral corners — then and only then do they turn their life over to Christ. Nobody goes to Christ on prom night, it’s only when they fucked it up so horribly that nobody down here will talk to them anymore. Charles Colson — this guy was the biggest prick on the planet for 45 years, he gets popped for Watergate, they’re leading him into Leavenworth where he’s about to be sodomized for the next decade — all of a sudden he found Christ. I guess Christ didn’t see him first, huh? (As Jesus Christ) "Oh, no, here comes that asshole Colson, probably wants to turn his life over to me. Taxi!"

– Dennis Miller (at the 5:55 mark) [via Lawyers, Guns & Money comments section]
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 9:48 AM on April 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

I guess Dennis Miller eventually found Chuck Colson.
posted by Legomancer at 9:51 AM on April 22, 2012 [17 favorites]

posted by notmtwain at 10:10 AM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Bob Woodward: Well, who is Charles Colson?
Harry Rosenfeld: The most powerful man in the United States is President Nixon. You've heard of him? Charles Colson is special counsel to the President. There's a cartoon on his wall. The caption reads, "When you've got 'em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow."
As a kid whose heroes ran more to the likes of Tom Hayden and Carl Sagan, I had a button with that quote on my bookbag throughout high school.
posted by octobersurprise at 10:14 AM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was just out for a bike ride in the wind on a rather chilly, grey April morning. Just after finishing my route, I found out that Chuck Colson had died and thought, "well, at least it's warm where he is."
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:23 AM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

"I guess Christ didn’t see him first, huh? (As Jesus Christ) "Oh, no, here comes that asshole Colson, probably wants to turn his life over to me. Taxi!"

– Dennis Miller (at the 5:55 mark yt )
posted by UrineSoakedRube

Gods love and forgiveness is unconditional, once you turn to him. (I am not a Christian btw).

Interesting thread. I got interested in Watergate after reading that ITT book, where some of it is mentioned in reagrd to the Dita Beard (sp?) affair. I don't think you can blame Colson alone for the stuff that happened, but at least Nixon enacted some decent policies ("were all Keynsians now").

The most interesting watergate character is probably Dean, who is not one of the inner circle.

posted by marienbad at 10:39 AM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

(In the Kurt Vonnegut sense)
posted by Hactar at 10:44 AM on April 22, 2012 [7 favorites]

He was a demonstration of a type of American politicking that most closely resembled fascism, in that it focused on the development and concentration of political power for its own end. The truth is, if you want power, it's not that hard to get. You just need a big enough carrot and a big enough stick and you can bend almost anyone to your will. American politics pretends to run on the promise of carrots, but there is a lot of stick work there as well, and the Republicans are notorious for how they wield it. They will, quite literally, destroy your life if you are a liability.

This was the man who really created the modern version of that stick. He was bad for politics, bad for democracy, and bad for America. I hope he's in a better place now. He made this one a worse place.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:48 AM on April 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thanks for living a 100% consistent life, Colson.
posted by telstar at 11:03 AM on April 22, 2012

Any friend of Nixon's is not a friend of mine. He and his ilk of political "Christians" have warped the public perception of true Christianity.
posted by Cranberry at 11:03 AM on April 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Christ, what an asshole.
posted by jabo at 11:22 AM on April 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Well, UrineSoakedRube's comment makes me put a "." for Dennis Miller's former perspicacity. But not for Colson.
posted by emjaybee at 11:32 AM on April 22, 2012

You know, judgement day is going to be interesting. I am sure there will be lots of surprises. I really haven't followed Colson since Watergate but was glad to hear he was doing prison ministry. As to judging his life?

I'm too busy taking care of my own.

(I've taken orders for funeral flowers this week for three different teenagers. Death is a serious thing. No one is guaranteed their next breath. Hopefully Mr Colson made a positive difference for people in prison. As I said, haven't followed him much so won't speculate.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 11:48 AM on April 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Not judging his life, just his actions. And he has a bunch of horrible ones.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:34 PM on April 22, 2012

What is life, but a series of actions?
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:40 PM on April 22, 2012

If Colson made a difference for people in prison, it was because he bribed them to conversion with a promise of better conditions if they became Christians.

That pretty much goes directly against what I read in the red words in my bible, but there you have it.
posted by hippybear at 12:44 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:52 PM on April 22, 2012

You know, judgement day is going to be interesting. I am sure there will be lots of surprises.

Well, there is a big one, but I won't spoil it for you.
posted by joe lisboa at 12:53 PM on April 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

Hitchens? Best player on the intramural afterlife softball team.
posted by verb at 1:10 PM on April 22, 2012

What is life, but a series of actions?

And what are actions, but a series of smaller actions and they a series smaller still? Yes, sir, it looks like actions all the way down.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:15 PM on April 22, 2012

posted by scunning at 1:24 PM on April 22, 2012

St. Alia of the Bunnies: "What is life, but a series of actions?"

Those actions are preceded by choices. His life was a series of horrible choices.
posted by Splunge at 1:25 PM on April 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I wonder if his image will be rehabilitated down the road, much like Nixon has in recent years (certainly pop cultural perceptions of him have helped). Of course, that's partly because politicians these days are so bad they make Nixon look less bad.
posted by Apocryphon at 1:53 PM on April 22, 2012

I haven't followed Chuck Colson much since I saw his psuedo-intellectual "break points" on the coffee table growing up and listened to his claptrap on christian radio in the 80s.

But I did know people who worked in his prison fellowship org, and while there may have been proselytizing and other bad aspects, I'm also aware that these ministries provided activities and comfort in the form of singing, donated library books, other presents, etc. to many prisoners.

I'm a village atheist and extremely liberal but this thread doesn't seem to be engaging with Colson's life in a very even-handed way.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 1:56 PM on April 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

"the man Pat Buchanan called "the meanest man in politics."
Pat Buchanan said that?!?
posted by TDavis at 2:05 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

You know who else retired and became an evangelical? religion the last refuge of scoundrels.
posted by hortense at 2:19 PM on April 22, 2012

I'm reading Richard Reeves' Richard Nixon. The nut jobs in his administration thought Colson was the real nut job.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:19 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Apocryphon, I think the rehabilitation already done; he did genuinely good work in terms of advocacy for prisoners' rights. He also spoke out in favor of lighter sentencing and a less punitive model of justice in cultural circles inclined to treat those ideas as lefty claptrap.

I can't judge whether Colson's 1974 conversion was motivated by genuine conviction or opportunism. Either way, he seems to have been genuinely affected by what he encountered behind bars, enough to spend forty years building an organization that did a lot of yeomans work caring for prisoners and their families. Along with World Vision, it became one of the handful of "acceptable" charities whose messages were more frequently associated with progressives.

The downside, of course, is that along with a passion for the rights of prisoners, Colson also brought a new convert's zeal and the conviction that any Christianity could affect long term change in the lives of the prisoners. PFI was successfully sued for a number of cases where prisoners had been promised better treatment if they converted, for example.

In addition, as Colson's work put him back into the inner circles of Evangelical leaders (and thus Conservative Christian policitics), he demonstrated that he was still more than willing to play hardball to advance a cause. His faith and his charity work allowed him to regain power and influence that his conviction had temporarily eliminated, and he used it as a bully pulpit for the Republican/Fundagelical culture war. That didn't tarnish his reputation among those who liked him, though - it just furthered the image of the tough fighter who was now "on God's side."

Seeing how much a short stint in prison affected him, I can't help but wonder how differently things would have turned out if something else had gotten his attention. A child or loved one coming out of the closet? His home country being invaded? A friend being tortured by enemy soldiers? A moving personal encounter with a Muslim family? It's impossible to say.

in a lot of ways, he strikes me as a power-hungry political operator whose life was interrupted by a profound eye-opening experience, but whose trajectory toward power remained fundamentally on track. The major change was that he achieved influence through charity work, but his later statements indicate he still held "looking out for the team" as a primary virtue.

Sorry if it seems like I'm thread sitting; Colson is just an interesting figure, having grown up in the evangelical world, and his death took me off guard. It's propmpted a lot of reflection.
posted by verb at 2:24 PM on April 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

verb's link to slacktivist's note on Colson's death seems to point to some other page that was last updated in 2005. This might be what he was trying to link to.

Gods love and forgiveness is unconditional, once you turn to him.

You know, I don't think this is correct. My understanding of Christianity is that forgiveness must be coupled with a genuine desire to change, which is part of what you mean when you say "once you turn to him." Nothing that I know of from that book says you can go on and be the same asshole you always were with nothing changed. How do you tell the genuine penitents from the posers? I think Jesus would say, you know them by their fruits.

Colson appears to not have had that fundamental change, and thus by the tenets of the religion he himself professed to he's probably roasting right now. An unkind thing to say of the deceased, but he made our world worse for his existence and apparently without remorse, and so to hell with him.
posted by JHarris at 2:25 PM on April 22, 2012

verb, you could roost on this thread if it were up to me.
posted by JHarris at 2:27 PM on April 22, 2012

Not a huge fan of CC the Republican, but he was a friend to many, many prisoners with no friends, family or prospects. I can't say I've done that.
posted by michaelh at 3:14 PM on April 22, 2012

You know, I don't think this is correct.
posted by JHarris

It seems it goes one way then the other... typical bible huh?

Galatians 2:16:

Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

Ephesians 2:8-9:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

James 2:24:

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Romans 11:6:

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
posted by marienbad at 3:25 PM on April 22, 2012

You know, I don't think this is correct.

It seems it goes one way then the other... typical bible huh?

Not sure how serious you guys are, but read the CCC for some explanation.
posted by michaelh at 3:42 PM on April 22, 2012

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

I'm not talking about being saved by works, I'm talking about not being damned by them.
posted by JHarris at 3:58 PM on April 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Colson was an evil son of a bitch--but he did actually help people in prisons get help, and non violent drug offenders get lower sentences, and he taught other republicans about the racial and social policies of prisons, and you know it's really difficult for me to figure out how respect the genuine good that he did, in the same place as acknowledging he was genuinely evil. It's like I am sure that Billy Graham fed the poor, the sheer level of mendacity that man was engaged in, i wouldn't want to be a judge in zion working the abacus.
posted by PinkMoose at 4:26 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not talking about being saved by works, I'm talking about not being damned by them.

I think that's one of the things that I find fascinating about Colson, though. While Prison Fellowship suffers from the "religion is what really makes a difference" conviction common to many religious organizations active in social issues, it is a legitimately influential charity working in an area that not many other organizations are. Even if those of us who aren't religious can envision a hypothetical better approach, the world would be poorer without Prison Fellowship. Dismissing the good work it does is no different than conservatives who pretend that Planned Parenthood only provides abortions, because it makes it easier for them to condemn.

As PinkMoose says, that's the real challenge: how do we look genuinely at the bad and damaging things that a person does while also acknowledging the good? Being able to recognize that complexity is part of adulthood -- neither whitewashing or demonizing help us understand a legacy like Colson's. If he'd simply worked for prisoners' rights after his conversion, it would be a simple before/after conversion story. Rather, he fought hard to make life better for one marginalized group while fighting to make it worse for another.
posted by verb at 4:37 PM on April 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

Someone like Colson is hard to exactly pin down, which is the way he was in life, and one reason he was such a wheel in the Nixon White House.

He was a criminal BUT BUT BUT he did all this good in revealing the horrors and problems in American prisons BUT BUT BUT he demanded conversion BUT BUT BUT at least he was actually trying to live out Christianity rather than just condemn BUT BUT BUT Republican BUT BUT BUT....

We know that people are capable of infinite good and infinite evil, and we know that "good" people do "bad" things (and "bad" people do "good" things). And yet, we want to look at someone's life and just brand them as GOOD or EVIL. It's easy and convenient. What, Hitchens says Mother Teresa was EVIL? Good enough for me!

Funny thing is, Jesus talks about this, obliquely, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, by framing the one who does "good" as the very person the questioning lawyer would despise. It'd be like the questioner be a liberal and the Samaritan Dick Cheney, or the questioner a conservative and the Samaritan Barack Obama.

I don't know what this really means, though, for Colson. I see him as an asshole who did good things. But then, I think most of us are just assholes who do good things occasionally to regularly. Colson was just an asshole who had power.
posted by dw at 4:54 PM on April 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

I see him as a person in prison that, just like a lot of people there, found god because it makes their time there easier. I know these folks. I know the type. They either find Jesus or Allah. It does not matter if they really believe. What matters to the prison officials is that they follow the rules and they don't make trouble.

And so they go along with it. Everyone says they are good with god one way or the other.

It's a load of crap.
posted by Splunge at 9:41 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

What good things did he do, dw? Converting prisoners to his own politically adulterated form of Christianity and rewarding them for their devotion to his blasphemies with better living conditions?

If his contemporaries offer any clues to his true interior life (like his fellow Nixon political cronies who went on to start Fox News as another way to promote their corrupted version of conservative political ideology), Colson probably never had any genuine conversion to Christianity anyway and was really just continuing to play the same political games as he had his whole life by different means.

The way I see it, Colson and other embittered conservatives of the time recognized that Christianity had become a powerful force for promoting political liberalism during the civil rights era and so after the failure of his project with Nixon, Colson embedded himself in religiosity, becoming a kind of political mole in the church, using every means at his disposal to push a less liberal, more politically useful version of Christian faith (in the same way that Ailes and company conceived Fox News as a cultural lever they could pull to make the media landscape more friendly for their form of crackpot pseudo-conservatism).

I doubt he found anything special waiting for him in death, as even post-"conversion," I don't see any evidence that anything in his heart had truly changed. Of course, it's not my place to judge his heart. But since his maker went through all the trouble of putting it on the left for him at birth, maybe he should have taken the hint and left it there.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:08 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

That seems like one example of a good thing he advocated, BurntHombre, but apart from writing an op/ed letter claiming exclusive credit for the legislation on behalf of Christian conservatives (as Colson puts it after noting the bill's driving force was a friend and fellow Christian conservative who incidentally worked with the not-so Christian conservative Ted Kennedy to get the legislation: "Think what this means: All over America, prisoners know help is coming because God’s people care." Kennedy, not being one of God's people presumably didn't really care enough to share in the ultimate credit.

Reading that link only demonstrates my point: He's preaching not just Christianity but specifically conservative Christianity and doing politics here. If you read what he actually says, he didn't have much of anything to do with the legislation himself, and what, is he going to not agree with legislation that opposes prison rape? And notice how even in this case, the particular form of Christian activism he was doing dovetails neatly into some of the wing-nuttier conservative fears about prison rape being part of the homosexual agenda.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:14 PM on April 23, 2012

People do evil, and good, for lots of reasons. Sometimes people do good in order to later do evil, or do evil in order to later do good. And sometimes this is on purpose, and sometimes it's accidental. And many people we would call evil (not all) don't consider themselves to be evil. People are complicated that way.

But the consequences for evil tend to be greater than for a "like amount," whatever that means, of good, because of the existence of death, a zero-point beyond which there is no return. Death clarifies a lot of morality. Not only does it mean there is no making up for physical harm beyond a certain point, it also makes other kinds of harm inflicted on people worse, by decreasing their options and worsening their experiences for what little life they do have. If you kill someone, or you make their whole life suck, which is worse? It could be either.

Because of this, I am not willing to give Colson a pass, even if he did some good things later in his life. Maybe if he had actually turned away from the mindset that led to Watergate, but contrary to what some people out there are saying, we don't have any real reason to believe the man felt remorse for that.
posted by JHarris at 1:02 PM on April 23, 2012

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