Friends, foes find little to doubt in Colson's sincerity

Monday, April 23, 2012

We can't blame people for being cynical about Chuck Colson's turnabout back in the Watergate days.

After all, he was called "Richard Nixon's hard man, the 'evil genius' of an evil administration," by Slate magazine writer David Plotz, and even called himself "valuable to the president ... because I was willing ... to be ruthless in getting things done."

As Special Counsel to the president, he and John Ehrlichman hired E. Howard Hunt to head up the White House Special Operations Unit -- the "Plumbers" -- to stop leaks, an effort that led to the break-in of Pentagon Papers-leaker Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office.

He resigned in 1973 and was indicted in 1974 for conspiracy to cover up the Watergate burglary. Given a copy of C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity," Colson became an evangelical Christian just before his arrest, a change several major newspapers and magazines called a ploy to reduce his sentence.

Rather than plead guilty to a crime for which he believed himself to be innocent, Colson talked prosecutors into a charge for which he did feel guilty, and was given a one- to three-year sentence and fined $5,000.

He served only seven months -- longer than almost any other Watergate figure -- but became aware of injustices done to prisoners and shortcomings in their rehabilitation, and felt a calling to develop a ministry to prisoners and promote changes in the justice system.

Colson channeled his pre-conversion drive and talents into founding the Prison Fellowship in 1976, promoting prisoner rehabilitation and reform, and offering inmates a chance to participate in faith-based programs.

Never one to shy from controversy, he helped write the 2009 ecumenical statement known as the Manhattan Declaration, which called on Catholics and Orthodox Christians to not comply with rules and laws permitting abortion, same-sex marriage and other matters that go against their religious convictions.

He was also an outspoken supporter of Proposition 8, the California measure, since ruled unconstitutional, preventing same-sex marriage.

Determined until the end, Colson fell ill while speaking at a Christian worldview conference on March 31. He died Saturday after an unsuccessful surgery to remove a blood clot on the brain.

Colson's outspoken defense of his faith has won him at least as many enemies since the Watergate scandal as in the years before.

But neither friend nor foe can find a reason to doubt he was genuinely changed.

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