History, Politics-Government, Religion.

Hearts and minds

During his years as a Republican political operative, Charles Colson prominently displayed an old Marine Corp saying in his home: 'When you’ve got ’em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.' Colson described those years and the hard crash that followed in his book Born Again as a mid-life autobiography precipitated by a mid-life crisis. After his role as a self-described 'hatchet man' for Nixon White House was slowly exposed during the Watergate scandal, he converted to Evangelical Christianity, and after being convicted of obstruction of justice, he spent some time in prison.


Colson was one of the more visible of Nixon’s coterie, the one who compiled the notorious ‘enemies list’ of those the Nixon administration feared or loathed politically. Colson was Nixon’s point-man for ‘political dirty tricks’ efforts by White House officials, who routinely smeared political opponents with false allegations, and helped among other things to defame Daniel Ellsberg, who was suspected of leaking a top-secret history of the Vietnam War to the press, and this was what sent him to prison.

It was interesting to read of a man who lurched violently from behaving as an amoral “end-justifies-the-means” political operative to a “born again” believer who re-dedicated his life to religious evangelicalism. I read this shortly after it was published, and was rather skeptical of aspects of Colson’s self-description. In particular, as I read his account of his pre-conversion life, he seemed to me to be systematically evasive when it came to any real admission of wrong-doing. He repeatedly confessed to the sin of pride, but was unable to bring himself to admit that he had done things that were in contravention to the both the spirit and the letter of U.S. law. The book quote above is indicative of his approach: It wasn’t me, it was us. The excesses just came like a genie out of a bottle.

By his lights, he was mean, but not enough to violate the law. In fact, he argued that he had to convince the judge presiding over his trial for defaming Ellsberg to allow him to plead guilty even though he broke no laws. There was no indication of remorse for his having repeatedly broken the Biblical Commandment (8th or 9th, depending on your source) that “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” much less the rules of fair elections.

As another reviewer described it, “Colson did nothing, saw nothing, said nothing. He was a great sinner in the abstract but not in the concrete.” What is true is that Colson set up the opposition-research apparatus of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, helped to assemble the infamous “plumbers” unit, and hired the lead Watergate burglar, Howard Hunt. Colson told Hunt in a taped conversation in November 1972, "When I write my memoirs, I’m going to say that the Watergate was brilliantly conceived as an escapade that would divert the Democrats’ attention from the real issues, and therefore permit us to win a landslide that we probably wouldn’t have won otherwise."(Nixon White House Tapes, 11/15/1972.)  A reading of the the entire transcript of the tape reveals a man who was adept at evading responsibility for something he fully understood was illegal.

Colson was implicated in a number of illegal activities and charged with several crimes, but only convicted of obstruction of justice in the Ellsberg case, for his part in attempting to frame Ellsworth. He never reached out or apologized to Ellsberg. Ellsberg believed that his plea bargain included no prosecution for the other charges; certainly the prosecutor accepted a plea bargain on that single charge, apparently not confident of convicting him on the others. In my reading of Colson’s autobiography, he came across as fearful of being charged with still other crimes, and that he was dancing in his practiced way very carefully to avoid admitting to anything concrete, even in his newly contrite and honest persona.

A changed man

Following the publication of this autobiography in 1976, and for the remainder of his life, Colson worked hard at converting others to his religion, and promoted faith-based programs to try to help cut recidivism in prison through his Religious Fellowship Ministries. Much of his book earnings went straight into his ministry. He clearly had moved away from the amoral exercise of political power to a life that was dedicated to the improvement of society. He deserves real credit for this. Prison reform still has a long way to go in this country, and Colson’s unstinting efforts to improve our prison system is highly laudable, even if not always as effective as claimed.

Did Charles Colson really change his stripes?

-Oregon Scribbler,

Colson twice redivivus. Oregon Scribbler.


Whatever his religious proclivities, Colson remained for me a man who,lived in the political shadows, his activities masked from the general public. The transition from Republican behind-the-scenes dirty tricks man prior to his conviction in the mid-70’s, to Evangelical Christian culture warrior and behind-the-scenes political organizer in the 2000’s did not seem out-of-character. His secrecy was not just habitual, but the more necessary because of his notoriety.

His evangelical star grew with the publishing in 1999 of How Now Shall We Live, largely a repeat of Schaeffer’s How Shall We Then Live. Widely touted as his masterpiece, it turns out that he wrote almost none of it, the majority being written by his co-author Nancy Pearcey, and the remainder by his long-time ghost-writer Harold Fickett.

According to Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s own political hatchet man, Colson became a “confidant” of President Bush and himself. Rove insisted that Colson was a culture warrior and not political. Rove’s sterling reputation for honesty notwithstanding, Colson’s authorized biographer did not agree with him. (See last quote below.)

His long efforts to help build the social agenda for the politicized religious right surfaced very publicly around his co-authorship in 2009 of the Manhattan Declaration, a manifesto that argued that anti-gay beliefs by the religious were protected by freedom of religion, and that if opposed in the legal arena civil disobedience was an appropriate response. (i.e. we have a right to suppress the civil rights of the LGBT community, and if you don’t let us, we will disobey the law. This is reminiscent of Schaeffer’s Christian Manifesto, which made similar arguments regarding abortion.) This document was widely supported by conservative religious leadership across denominations.

Colson’s voice grew more public on conservative social issues until his death in 2012, making harsh and often uncareful statements in opposition of civil rights for the LGBT community, and specious arguments in support of the Hobby Lobby company during their court challenge of the Affordable Care Act requirements to pay for contraception for their employees. (See Os Guinness, another Schaeffer acolyte, for similar arguments in his recent book The Global Public Square.)

So, did Colson change his stripes? Certainly: Post-Watergate he became a passionate Evangelical and prison reformer who campaigned hard for the bettering of society and the saving of souls. And certainly not: Colson’s considerable political skills were found useful in the fun-house mirror world of right wing Christian politics, where Christ’s radical social message is routinely ignored and compassion is reserved for the powers that be. Colson was forgiven his sins, and in some ways given permission to operate as he once had, albeit just that much more stealthily, and continued to be less-than-careful about his causes and methods to attain his political goals. Colson learned from one of the best political hardball players, Richard Nixon, who taught him to dissemble boldly, and to hide what he was doing on behalf of his cause.

Control what they need, and their hearts and minds will follow

For Colson, it appeared to always be about hearts and minds. He moved a good distance away from his harsh and unprincipled methods of his early life, but he remained hard-nosed after prison, hard-nosed for Jesus. His faith-based prison programs are at their core, coercive. You didn’t get the goodies unless you agreed to adopt a rigid way of looking at the world. He no longer looked to control people by grabbing them by the balls, but his substitute, holding out work-release and vocational programs, programs usually unavailable to the prison population due to budget constraints, in exchange for embracing Evangelical Chistian precepts was perhaps less painful, but not less manipulative.

Reading about his prison initiatives brought to mind volunteering at a Christian homeless shelter as a teen. In order to get a meal, to get a bed for the night, the homeless had to first attend a church service. The great majority of them slept, fought, burped and farted, and laughed and talked among themselves, not even bothering to feign interest, waiting it out for the following meal. It struck me at the time that maybe the simple act of humbly volunteering to provide a meal to someone in need, something I admired in those who served those meals at the shelter, might be a more compelling influence on those homeless people than a mandatory sermon.

There is a high number of washouts in Colson’s prison program, InnerChange, and tellingly, when recidivism rates are measured for the program, program administrators only count those who stayed the course, a gross distortion; when counted more carefully, the rates of recidivism are not better than those outside the program. Many of the participants are open about being there for the opportunity, not the religion. These programs clearly have helped many inmates, but it is very difficult to argue that the time and money spent could not have had the same individual and societal outcomes without the religion. And the cost of marrying governmental institutions directly to a requirement to worship by the rules of a specific sect seems a very high price, and one that violates the basic freedoms built into our Constitution.

In the years after writing this book, Colson in my estimate was a better person than prior to his incarceration, but less so than he or his admirers made him out to be. His authorized biography by Aitken, written in 2005 (quoted above left) takes the same “I was completely innocent of any of the charges against me, even the one I was convicted of” approach. It would seem that Colson repented of his political manipulations far less than he insisted he did, not just in his Born Again autobiography, but throughout the remainder of his life, as he employed his considerable political skills in support of religious coercion and intolerant social policies, as he flirted with the boundaries of church and state. My initial skeptical response to his very public and evasive repentance in Born Again seems to have been borne out by the arc of Colson’s life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Solve the puzzle to post a comment *