The thirty years between serving time in prison for Watergate-related crimes and the recent revelation that W. Mark Felt was Watergate's "Deep Throat," have been good to Charles W. Colson. Earlier this year, Time magazine spotlighted him as one of the twenty-five most influential evangelical Christians in America. In May, Calvin Theological Seminary established a Presidential Chair in his name. Over the past three decades, he has been running a rapidly growing Christian-centered faith-based prison reform organization. And, Colson has recently re-emerged as a prime time political player.
Yet despite all these developments, Colson will always be linked with Watergate. The man, once called Richard Nixon's hatchet man by the Wall Street Journal, received more mainstream media attention after the Felt revelation than at any other time since the unfolding of the Watergate scandal.
In its cover story earlier this year Time, a publication that cast doubt about Colson's post-Watergate/pre-prison religious conversion three decades ago, named Colson one of "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America." Under the banner "Reborn and Rehabilitated" the story pointed out that Colson, who once advocated bombing the Brookings Institution and boasted that he would "walk over my own grandmother to re-elect Richard Nixon," had found religion and founded Prison Fellowship Ministries a $50 million organization operating in all 50 states and 110 countries.
On May 19, the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Calvin Theological Seminary announced the establishment of a Charles W. Colson Presidential Chair which will fund the president's office of the Christian Reformed Church seminary for 10 years. A generous, but unspecified, grant from the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, a major donor to right wing causes and GOP campaigns, made the Colson Presidential Chair possible.
After years of flourishing in mainly Christian evangelical circles, Colson has recently re-emerged as a powerful political figure.
On October 3, 2002, Colson signed on to The Land Letter, a document that, according to Wikipedia, provided the "theological support for a just war pre-emptive invasion of Iraq." Written by Richard D. Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the letter was also co-signed by several other religious right notables including Bill Bright, then chairman of Campus Crusade for Christ, D. James Kennedy, president of Coral Ridge Ministries, and Carl D. Herbster, president of the American Association of Christian Schools.
Colson also "helped cobble together an alliance of Evangelicals and Catholic conservatives, advised Karl Rove on Sudan policy and put his prestige behind an anti-gay-marriage lobbying body called the Arlington Group," Time reported.
At an October 15, 2004, "Mayday for Marriage" gathering on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Colson got his two cents in on marriage. Spelling out his support for Covenant Marriage, Colson told the crowd that it was not "going to be a one-year, or a two-year, or a three-year fight. It will be fought until we prevail. He urged the crowd not to "quit" and not to "despair... [because] despair is a sin because it denies the Sovereignty of God."
Between 1969 and 1973, Colson was chief counsel to President Nixon. He was also deeply involved with the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP). "At a CREEP meeting on March 21st, 1971, it was agreed to spend $250,000 on 'intelligence gathering' on the Democratic Party," Wikipedia noted. "Colson and John Erlichman appointed E. Howard Hunt to the White House Special Operations Unit (the so-called 'Plumbers'). Colson organized the Plumber's burglary of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office in September 1971 [Ellsberg released "The Pentagon Papers" to the New York Times which helped blow the lid off Pentagon disinformation and misinformation campaigns about the War in Vietnam.] Colson hoped that revelations about Ellsberg could be used to discredit the anti-war left."
In 1974 Charles Colson pleaded nolo contendre (no contest) to obstruction of justice in the Ellsberg case. Although he was sentenced to a one-to-three year term in prison, he served only seven months at the Maxwell Correctional Facility in Alabama. Shortly before sentencing, Colson became an evangelical Christian.
When Colson emerged from prison, he founded the Prison Fellowship Ministries, a Christian-centered organization aiming to reform prison inmates and reduce recidivism rates. One of PFM's major initiatives, InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), started-up in 1997 with a project in Texas that aimed to reduce recidivism through acceptance of "the life-transforming power of Jesus Christ." According to the IFI website, the initiative "is a revolutionary, Christ-centered, Bible-based prison program supporting prison inmates through their spiritual and moral transformation beginning while incarcerated and continuing after release."
Currently, InnerChange prisons also exist in Iowa, Kansas and Minnesota, and services about 1,200 inmates. "Each of these states pays about a third of costs for programs, which is about $250,000 each," the Virginian-Pilot reported. InnerChange contracts "call for the ministry to pay for all religious guidance and for the states to pay for other programs such as vocational training and high school equivalency courses."
Colson's faith-based work has drawn criticism from a number of circles: In February 2003, Americans United for Separation of Church and State charged in a pair of lawsuits that, InnerChange "seeks to rehabilitate Iowa prison inmates by converting them to fundamentalist Christianity [which] violates the U.S. Constitution." An AU Press Release claimed that the organization "indoctrinates participants in religion, discriminates in hiring staff on religious grounds and gives inmates special privileges if they enroll."
On April 30 of this year, a federal judge in Des Moines, Iowa ruled that the AU lawsuit would proceed to trial.
In a June 2002 Wall Street Journal column, Colson took off in another direction focusing his attention on Muslims who make jailhouse conversions to Islam. Colson claimed that there was a "growing Muslim presence" in prisons and these "alienated, disenfranchised people are prime targets for radical Islamists who preach a religion of violence, of overcoming oppression by jihad."
Colson also claimed that al-Qaeda training manuals "specifically identify America's prisoners as candidates for conversion because they may be 'disenchanted with their country's policies'." Colson also pointed out "terrorism experts fear these angry young recruits will become the next wave of terrorists. As U.S. citizens, they will combine a desire for 'payback' with an ability to blend easily into American culture."
The best way to prevent conversions to radical Islam, Colson concluded, would be for prison officials to "deny radical imams access to inmates."
There have been questions raised about Prison Fellowship Ministry's so-called "success" rate in reducing recidivism. While Time praised PFM for reducing recidivism rates among prisoners, reporter Mark Kleinman looked closely at the study the magazine based its conclusion on. Kleinman's August 2003 investigation for Slate, found that InnerChange participants actually performed somewhat worse than the control group and were slightly more apt to be re-arrested and re-imprisoned.
The Penn study, Kleinman wrote, used "selection bias" or "creaming," allowing InnerChange to ignore participants that dropped out or were kicked out of the program, or who, for some other reasons, never finished the program.
Despite his political resurrection, Colson cannot avoid the shadow of Watergate. After the Felt revelation, Colson joined two other Watergate figures, G. Gordon Liddy and Pat Buchanan, in excoriating Felt during a series of interviews on television's cable news networks.
He told MSNBC that he "was shocked because I worked with him closely... And you would think the deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, you could talk to with the same confidence you could talk to a priest."
On CNN, Colson said that he "talked to him [Felt] often and trusted him with very sensitive materials. So did the president. To think that he was out going around in back alleys at night looking for flowerpots, passing information to someone, it's . . . not the image of the professional FBI that you would expect."
Colson later told World magazine's Mindy Belz that he was concerned that Felt might be treated as a hero: "The principle being taught today in a relativistic environment is getting young people to believe that this is a noble act that he did. He could not have done the right thing. He broke his oath of office. He broke the law. He snuck off cloak-and-dagger style to convey privileged information."
Coincidentally, Colson's television appearances and interviews with the press came shortly before the publication of his new book, The Good Life: Seeking Purpose, Meaning, and Truth in Your Life (Tyndale House Publishers).
When asked in a recent interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network's Gordon Robertson (the son a Pat), whether he had any regrets over Watergate, Colson that he was "glad for Watergate."
"Out of adversity comes the greatest blessing," said Colson. The timing of the publication of his new book "is a marvelous illustration of providence. I wrote the book over the last two years, it got into the bookstores last week. I had no idea of what the timing of Deep Throat would be. On every television program I have been invited on, they ask me about my reflections on things, and I've been able to talk about some of the things coming out in this book. So you've got to say that is an example of God's timing."
Colson talked of having made a mistake by not being forthright with President Nixon and telling him that what he was proposing -- a team that would do "what the FBI does" and "get the classified documents [The Pentagon Papers] that were stolen from us" -- would likely break the law: "I should have stood up in the Oval Office that day and said to the president, don't do this, it's wrong. (I was thinking to myself that) he wouldn't have invited you back in, but at least you would have let him know there is something wrong with what we were doing. I didn't do that. I write that as an example of how everybody finds the capacity of justifying things when they should know they are wrong."
Felt's Vanity Fair confession brought Colson back to the airwaves of cable television's news networks. His appearances allowed him to make the case that Mark Felt wasn't a hero and shouldn't be seen as such; that in fact, both he and Felt were guilty of the same crime -- illegally revealing confidential FBI information.
"Let the country learn from Watergate and Mark Felt that it is not right to use illegal means even if you think you are pursuing a just end," Colson told Robertson. "When you begin to believe that, what you have is a collapse of ethics in society. You are able to rationalize everything."
One of the enduring messages that Colson draws from Watergate is that the ends do not justify the means. A truly reborn Colson might have the courage to take that message to George W. Bush's White House.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.
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