Getting Colson's wrongs right

A reader sent us a link to the Slate feature "The Wrong Stuff: What it Means to Make Mistakes." It's written by by Kathryn Schulz and features Q&As with notable folks discussing their relationship to being wrong. It was my first visit to The Wrong Stuff but you can read past interviews with Innocence Project Co-Founder Peter Neufeld, Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger, chef Anthony Bourdain, and criminal defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz.

But this recent interview was titled "From the White House to the Jailhouse to the Pulpit: Chuck Colson on Being Wrong." Many readers of GetReligion are probably familiar with Colson:

Today, Colson is a prominent evangelical leader and founder of the Prison Fellowship and the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. During the Nixon administration, though, he was, by all accounts (including his own) secular, self-obsessed, and scary. Officially, he was special counsel to the president. Unofficially, he was Nixon's hatchet man and "the White House tough guy." In 1973, as the waters of Watergate rose around him, Colson simultaneously found God and found himself in prison for obstruction of justice. Below, he and I talk about why he converted, what he regrets most about his involvement with Watergate, and why Christianity is "the religion of second chances."

You have a fairly dramatic conversion story. What first prompted it?

Even though I am pretty familiar with Colson's story, I found this interview to be fascinating. And it's not as if Schulz seems like an expert on moral theology, as the reader who submitted it points out. But her interest in letting a subject tell his own conversion story makes for a great read.

Her questions show that she is listening intently to each word uttered by her subject (e.g. "Was that just social discomfort, or was it an inner discomfort--the first stirrings of your conversion?," "Can you recollect what you were crying about?," etc.). She asks him for details on the when of his conversion and is surprised to find out that it wasn't a jailhouse conversion, as she'd long suspected. Here's a great section of the interview:

If Watergate didn't prompt your conversion, do you feel that your conversion affected how you handled Watergate?

Oh, yes. One day I did a show with Mike Wallace. This was when Watergate was absolutely at a fever pitch and the trials were going to begin and by this time I'd been indicted. He asked me how I could be a friend of Richard Nixon, given the things Nixon had said on the tapes. And I said, "Well, he's my friend and I don't turn my back on my friend."

I got home that night and realized that there was no way I could be a good witness for Christ if I compromised on what I could say, or was not as fully honest as I could be. So I decided the best thing I could do was plead guilty. I sent my lawyers into the Watergate prosecutors to say I wouldn't plea bargain, and that I had not done what they charged me with [conspiracy to cover up the Watergate burglary], but here was something I had done [obstruction of justice]--and if they wanted to charge me with that, I would plead guilty. And I did.

When you look back on that era, what's your biggest regret?

My biggest regret is that I saw things going on that I should've known were wrong or I knew were wrong but then I rationalized them away. I didn't say anything. I should've spoken up a number of times and said, "Wait a moment, this isn't right," and I didn't. That's my greatest regret.

The interview continues to dig down -- "What do you think stopped you from speaking out?" and other questions that help really flesh out what was going with his conversion and how it changed his life. So the interview naturally goes into prison ministry, to which he's devoted 35 years of his life, and why he thinks the modern prison system is futile. He mentions that when he got out of prison, there were 239,000 people in prison. Today there are 2.3 million. They discuss the sometimes interesting alliances that are formed when working to reform prisons.

But the interview gets back to religion, where Colson explains the Christian perspective on sin and second chances. They also discuss truth claims and religious tolerance and many other interesting tidbits, too. A nice read and I look forward to future Wrong Stuff Q&As.

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