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Chuck Colson vs. The Fundamentalists

How political can you get?

By From the February 1986 issue

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(From the Feb. 1986 issue of The American Spectator.)

Chuck Colson, the Nixon hatchet-man turned evangelist, and Jerry Falwell, the Lynchburg preacher playing statesman, are brothers in Christ. But they're hardly close friends. They might have been -- after all, one of Colson's tasks as a young secular humanist in the Nixon White House was to be the administration's liaison with the religious community -- but somehow history got in the way. Falwell was still grounded in Lynchburg, excoriating the ghost of Martin Luther King for mixing religion and politics, when Colson was wooing religious leaders from the White House. By the time Falwell had his celebrated epiphany on the road to Washington, Colson too had changed, finding God and in the process turning his back on everything he had stood for in the past. "I wondered," said the transformed Colson, "how I could have spent three and a half years in the White House and missed so many things that really matter." Colson left power and politics for God. His auto-biography, Born Again, sold in the millions, but he would seek none of the trappings of evangelical stardom -- the television show, the crystal cathedral. He became a prison preacher, a minister to the hopeless and forgotten, working as closely with those who wield no power as he once did with those who do.

Today the two men are at odds. There is little doubt who Colson is referring to when he calls for "sober soul-searching" in the evangelical community because "worldly power -- whether measured by buildings, budgets, baptisms, or access to the White House -- is more often the enemy than the ally of Godliness." He has mocked the ascent of TV evangelists -- "Some preachers, especially a few I've seen on television, sound like they've just hung up from a private session with Him before going on the air" -- and questioned their pretensions to authority: "The quiet, often unnoticed actions of ordinary Christians…speak far more loudly than all the bombast of so-called religious leaders." Nor is there much doubt about whether the man who has quipped that "the Kingdom of God will not arrive on Air Force One" thinks Pat Robertson should run for President. "The presidency would not be something a Christian leader could run for, but something he'd be drafted for, and there is only one Person who could do the drafting." In other words, no.

It has always been true, of course, that some of the bitterest critics of the newly politicized evangelists have been other evangelists. Bob Jones (of Bob Jones University) has said that Falwell's involvement with politics makes him the greatest instrument of Satan in America today. But no one's criticisms carry the weight of Colson's. In the fundamentalist panorama men have repented from crime or alcoholism or even -- as in the case of Pat Robertson -- a bad case of secular humanism. But never has a man been redeemed from something of the symbolic enormity of Watergate. "A religion based on conversion," Garry Wills has said of fundamentalism, "tends to measure the height of a man's rise by the depth of his fall." By this standard, Colson is a giant, whose power as an evangelist is owed entirely to the sinfulness of his political past. Bob Jones's quarrel with Falwell is theological; Colson speaks from personal experience. For his political sins he was sent to prison where, he remembers, "surrounded by despair and suffering, I began to see through the eyes of the powerless. I began to understand why God views society not through the princes of power, but through the eyes of the sick and the needy, the oppressed and the downtrodden…. I learned that power did not equal justice."

CHUCK COLSON IS NOT simply the most powerful internal critic of the religious right. He is also, in a sense, the most sophisticated. Unlike so many of Falwell's detractors, he does not issue a blanket condemnation of all forms of political activity. In fact, through his prison ministry, the organization known as Prison Fellowship, he has become involved with criminal justice movements across the country. Colson explains that his own experiences with "the injustices in our courts, and the barbarisms in our prisons," inspired him to action. Today Colson the prison preacher is also Colson the prison reformer, an outspoken critic of capital punishment and prison conditions. He is for criminal restitution and innovative sentencing for nonviolent offenders. He has spoken and continues to speak directly to state legislatures in support of reform legislation because, as he puts it in his most recent book, Who Speaks for God?, "the only way to combat the demagoguery which so inflames public passions [about crime] is for Christians to work for laws which apply biblical standards to criminal justice issues."

Colson has even added to Prison Fellowship a registered political lobby group called Justice Fellowship, which, since its founding in 1983, has been involved in everything from the fight against Congress's recent Crime Control Act to the drafting of the 1983 Nunn-Armstrong "Sentencing Improvement Act." For Colson these were serious, critical battles. In fact, when the Nunn-Armstrong bill was tabled by the Senate, Colson reacted by including the addresses of the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives in his Prison Fellowship newsletter. Sound like a good lobbyist? "One thing about a democracy is clear," Colson wrote, exhorting his readers to action. "In it the people will get the government they deserve…"

There is a substantial difference, however, between Colson's political activity and that of the fundamentalists he criticizes. Unlike groups such as the Moral Majority with their broad emphasis on electoral politics, he sticks closely to single-issue lobbying. "We don't expect to be able to usher in the Kingdom of God," says Justice Fellowship director Daniel Van Ness, "but there are biblical principles we think we can apply to the specific question of criminal justice." Nor does Colson make political endorsements, urging Christians to vote only for men and women of demonstrated integrity. Justice Fellowship is careful to steer a neutral course. Armstrong and Nunn approached Colson in the drafting of their crime bill, not the other way around, and Van Ness stresses the symbolic importance of the bill's bipartisan sponsorship. On the state level, Justice Fellowship avoids the endorsement and support of organizations and interest groups, preferring instead to set up state caucuses of concerned individuals. The contrast between this narrow mandate and the Moral Majority is obvious.

Colson has a very clear sense, in other words, of the limits of his political activity. Even as he works for prison reform he recognizes that "penal institutions can't deal with the ultimate problem: the human heart. That's why the gospel of Christ is the only real answer." At the center of Colson's ministry is his individual work with prisoners. Through Prison Fellowship he has set up a highly acclaimed rehabilitative and support network that today uses local volunteers and professional counselors to minister to thousands of convicts, ex-convicts, and convicts' families. Justice Fellowship is simply conceived as a complement to this work. Michael Cromartie, one of Colson's early aides, explains that "Chuck set up Justice Fellowship to authenticate his concern for prisoners. He couldn't go in there and gain their respect if he weren't doing something for them on the outside." Even Colson's political conclusions -- which essentially form a "liberal" agenda on criminal justice and prison reform -- seem to have been reached less for explicitly ideological reasons than because of his firm religious conviction that "even a modest effort by Christians at evangelizing a prison can do more to reduce the crime rate than building twenty new fortresses."

INDEED, EVEN THOUGH Colson uses the political process to advance certain of his goals, he seems to have little respect or patience for it. Drawing heavily on the work of French legal philosopher Jacques Ellul, Colson often argues that political power is an illusion, that the governing institutions are incapable of dealing effectively with human problems. An activist by temperament -- "Jesus forgave sin and fed the hungry…. Can an obedient follower do less?" --Colson is frustrated by politics. "One of the major things that led to my conversion," he recalls, "was that when I walked out of the White House I realized most of the problems I had worked on there were worse when I left power than when I had begun." The religious right, he says, is in the grip of this political illusion: "Many evangelicals have sought to solve our culture's problems from the top down, by 'taking dominion over America.' Such rhetoric may make us conspicuous in the news, but for the most part we are also conspicuous by our absence from the day-to-day battles where human problems are most acute."

On occasion Colson will even sound like a radical when he talks about modern Christianity's evasion of social responsibility. He can be biting on the subject of the "middle class church"-- that "attractive edifice in a location near a growing suburb and as far away from crime-infested downtown as possible…[with] committees organizing concerts, covered-dish suppers, Bible studies, slide shows, and the like." Once, on Jim Bakker's television show "PTL Club," Colson stunned the audience by suggesting that the word of God was more real in the prisons where he took his ministry than there in the TV studio. As he remembers the moment: "I looked at the smiling, white, scrubbed-clean faces of the audience…the ladies with puffed-up coiffures that looked like spun candy; but my mind saw expressionless men in dirty brown, marching in cadence along steel and concrete ramps. For me this was reality…" Colson feels called to work among the "powerless and the oppressed." "Christians must no longer sit idly by," he says, in another context. "We must, if necessary, defy immoral authority."

Those who know Colson don't take this rhetoric too literally. He may sound off against the middle-class ethos, but the Prison Fellowship has its headquarters in an old mansion in Reston, Virginia, an "attractive edifice in a location near a growing suburb and as far away from crime-infested downtown as possible." Ladies with puffed-up coiffures that look like spun candy probably form the backbone of Prison Fellowship's financial contributors. As for defying authority and working outside of the system, Colson's ministry with inmates is possible only because of a special dispensation from Norman Carlson, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The point is that Colson uses the language of radical Christianity simply for effect, to shake up the traditional fundamentalist passivity toward social problems that manifests itself either in narrow evangelism -- one Oral Roberts aide described his organization's prison ministry to me as "distributing 100,000 bibles and bible cassettes free of charge" -- or, on the political level, as an arid "law 'n' order" mentality. There is absolutely no indication that because Colson borrows from the left he feels bound to it in any larger sense. This is a man who has taken communion from evangelicalism's most prominent radical -- Jim Wallis of Sojourner's magazine -- but who also once silenced a hostile college audience asking about Watergate by stating flatly: "Richard Nixon is my friend, and I don't turn my back on my friends." Political terms and the implications of ideology seem to have little meaning for Colson. Because, ultimately, he seems to hold the capabilities of politics in disdain, he seems to be above it, unfettered by its restrictions. This is the freedom Colson has found in being born again. The power broker for Nixon is now a power broker for Jesus. Colson doesn't feel beholden to any ideological standards save those of his conscience.

THIS APPARENT CONTEMPT of Colson's for politics and political institutions is at the heart of his debate with the religious right. Tim LaHaye, who as head of the American Coalition for Traditional Values (ACTV) and a founding board member of the Moral Majority, has just recently moved from the fundamentalist backwaters to a Washington office overlooking the Capitol, sounds more hurt than anything else when he says: "I think it would be disastrous for our country if all Christians adopted Colson's attitude." Another evangelical within the Administration speaks sharply of Colson's refusal to provide Christians in politics with guidance about how to square faith with secular responsibility: "I will tell you for a fact that if I were in any way uncomfortable with the use of power I wouldn't survive. Colson gives me no help in how to use political power in a place like the White House." Colson is so dismissive of the whole issue that when it comes to providing role models for the Christian use of power he will only make vague references to the English parliamentary reformer Wilberforce and render recondite theological distinctions that usually involve Mother Teresa -- "she has no power in the worldly sense…but she has enormous authority."

The fundamentalists, above all else, want their struggles to be taken seriously. The purpose of the historic founding meeting of the Moral Majority was, according to its organizer Robert Billings, no less than "to draw up a plan to save America." LaHaye claims Colson has no sense of urgency. "His was a comfortable position when we enjoyed a Christian consensus," says LaHaye, "but that's been eroded by secular humanists." As LaHaye put it in an earlier interview: "They have us in a stranglehold. There are only 275,000 of them, but they control everything -- the mass media, government, and even the Supreme Court…Either the church is going to become morally active and set moral issues as the dominant standard for its elected officials or we will be overrun by humanist thought by 1990." For LaHaye, times have changed. Cautious lobbying must give way to voter registration, religious agendas, and Christian candidates. "Almost everything is political these days, "he continues. "We've begun to realize that government is the most powerful human force in the world."

LaHaye and the Moral Majority have a point. Nathan Glazer, among others, has argued that the agenda of the religious right was only a response to the success of secular and liberal forces in America. Richard John Neuhaus, in an essay for Commentary entitled "What the Fundamentalists Want," portrays the fundamentalist entry into politics as an understandable response to an assault on their cultural and religious values. Does Colson appreciate this? Sometimes it's not clear that he does, and he seems to criticize fundamentalists for something that they themselves did not do willingly.

But it is one thing to say that the fundamentalists arrived at the public square reluctantly, and another thing to say that once they got there their inhibitions remained. This is what the fundamentalists' defenders have tried to argue. "At heart, Falwell remains a country preacher," wrote Dinesh D'Souza in his recent biography. Glazer too argues that the fundamentalists are engaged in a "defensive offensive" with limited aims. "If we withdraw from imposing the views and the beliefs of the cosmopolitan elite on the whole country," he concludes, "we will find the new fundamentalism returning to its modest role in the American kaleidoscope." Neuhaus, although he concedes that the activist fundamentalists "are not going to go back to the wilderness," stresses the modesty of their eventual goals: "…the country cousins have shown up in force at the family picnic. They want a few rules changed right away. Other than that they promise to behave, provided we do not again try to exclude them from family deliberations."

This is a seductive argument, especially for those with an interest in quieting what Neuhaus calls the "increasingly hysterical and increasingly hollow alarm" over the religious right. Yet -- and this is Colson's strongest point -- it does not ring true, not so long as Jerry Falwell turns from TV evangelism to international ambulance chasing or Pat Robertson hungrily awaits word from God on whether to run for the presidency. There is simply too much eagerness in fundamentalist political activity -- the exploitation of direct mail, the proliferation of PACs, the slick and lavish promotional efforts. They may have been pushed into politics, but now they like the game an awful lot. Tim LaHaye has on the cover of his monthly "Report from the Nation's Capital" a picture of himself on the Senate steps. Is he troubled? Is he tight-lipped? No, he's smiling, and somehow that seems entirely appropriate.

THE FACT IS THAT in some sense fundamentalism has always been a political movement waiting to happen. Historian Edwin Orr points out that the appeal of modern evangelicalism is for "enlistment, not repentance" -- in other words, that evangelists have always exploited Christianity's populist characteristics, its potential as a social movement, at the expense of the more demanding aspects of Protestant theology. Even as it has been in reaction to secular America, fundamentalist culture has shown a marked ability to adapt to social trends. Evangelical historian George Marsden calls this a historic propensity to respond to secularization "by bless[ing] its manifestations -- such as materialism, capitalism, and nationalism -- with Christian symbolism." In the fifties that meant that Oral Roberts, in preaching to a largely rural and poor audience, recast the gospel into a variation of the American dream. His text was John 3:2 -- "I wish above all things that thou may prospereth and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth" -- not the book of Job. And today? Consider the two rules from Pat Robertson's 1982 manifesto The Secret Kingdom. This is yuppie theology: "First, there is absolute abundance in the kingdom of God. Second, it is possible to have total favor with the ruler of that abundance…. If a person is continuously in sickness, poverty, or other physical or mental straits, then he is missing the truths of the Kingdom." As Notre Dame historian Nathan Hatch sums up the modern evangelists: "[They] spoke the language of peace of mind in the 1950s, developed a theology of 'body-life' and community in the wake of the 1960s, and are currently infatuated with a gospel of self-esteem that correlates precisely with the contemporary passion for self-fulfillment."

In other words, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the fundamentalists have taken to the political process so quickly and completely. That strain in fundamentalism that believes in an abundant God, what Colson calls the notion of God as a "rich and benevolent uncle," has easily adapted to modern America's emphasis on acquiring and using political power. If prosperity is the gift of God, then so must be the political clout that comes with it. Do the fundamentalist meek still inherit the earth? Pat Robertson, the Christian entrepreneur made good, doesn't seem to think so. "God uses oak trees," he says, somewhat obscurely, "not mushrooms." For Tim LaHaye, making it in America means making it in Washington. Power is a Christian birthright. "If we comprise thirty percent of the people in this country," he maintains, "we should hold thirty percent of the elected offices."

This is a dangerous attitude for the Christian witness. For some on the religious right, advancing a political agenda has come to take precedence over even the most basic ethical considerations. A number of years ago, University of Chicago historian Martin Marty pointed out that the Moral Majority's evaluation scale for politicians would have given then Congressman Paul Simon, a committed Christian, zero, and Florida Rep. Richard Kelly, who was fingered in the Abscam investigation for pocketing a $25,000 bribe, a perfect rating. Does this mean that Christians should still vote for Kelly over Simon? Yes, says Tim LaHaye: "If I had to choose between a rascal like Kelly and an anti-moralist, I would be inclined to vote for the rascal…"

In the fundamentalist world, ideological considerations have begun to color fellowship with other Christians. Just as Falwell found Bishop Tutu a "phony," Tim LaHaye expresses puzzlement at the fact that Sen. Mark Hatfield can be a liberal and a Christian. "He's a real enigma to us," says LaHaye. "He must be a melancholy temperament. Melancholy temperaments are such supersonic idealists that they are often highly impractical." And what of born-again Jimmy Carter? This time LaHaye is certain: "I shook hands with him twice and got absolutely no spiritual response."

Colson's objections to this politicized Christianity are not particularly radical, nor are they particularly new. In fact, these arguments have long been made against the religious left. Who remembers what Richard Neuhaus said of the political activism of the National Council of Churches just four years ago? "At stake, most ominously, is fidelity to the gospel of Christ. Chesterton said the great sin is to call a green leaf gray. It is the dullest gray to call salvation politics. The political task is urgent but it is one among many. Yet the imperiousness of the political in our culture is such that for many Christians the actual state of fellowship, how they relate to other Christians, is determined more by what one thinks of Ronald Reagan than by what one thinks of God." Today, as some of the fundamentalists are guilty of these same sins, it is left to Chuck Colson, the Nixon hatchet-man turned evangelist, to sound the alarm -- not over what a politically ascendant fundamentalism is doing to the rest of America, but over what it is doing to itself.


Malcolm Gladwell is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

(From the Feb. 1986 issue of The American Spectator.)

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