On Chuck Colson: Can reporters see past Watergate?

It's pretty interesting to read the obituaries of Charles Colson by those who were alive during Watergate and those who weren't. It's clear that some reporters are stuck in the 1970s, apparently unaware of how the state of evangelicalism was shaped by Colson's complex life and legacy.

Colson's rocky relationship with the media might have something with his life portrayal as reporters try to explain President Nixon's "hatchet man" turned evangelical leader. Jonathan Aitken (who also wrote a tribute for Christianity Today) demonstrated in his biography Colson's complex relationship with reporters, especially since his conversion was met with skepticism or cynicism.

Colson Has Found Religion was the New York Times headline. The news media across the country followed suit. Columnists, editorial writers, and cartoonists had a field day of mockery. Syndicated columnist Harriet Van Horne caught the general mood when she wrote, "I cannot accept the sudden coming to Christ of Charles Colson. If he isn't embarrassed by this sudden excess of piety, then surely the Lord must be.”

Part of what seems to complicate the media's relationship might be that the Washington Post's Woodward and Bernstein are the real heros for journalists coming out of Watergate. Someone like Colson, who had a conversion experience and spent time in jail, does not fit the narrative of who was on right side at that time. Though Colson had a rough relationship with the media, there was this little interesting bit:

The acerbic columnist Jack Anderson launched an investigation into the finances of Prison Fellowship after hearing rumors that Colson was enriching himself from his religious activities. After establishing that Colson earned a salary of only $59,000 from his ministry, and that the far larger sums he earned from his speaking fees and book royalties went not into his pocket but directly to Prison Fellowship, Anderson wrote several columns praising Colson and became a regular donor to Prison Fellowship. These anecdotes involving journalists in the late 1970s reflected a turning of the tide of public opinion about Colson.

Colson did not have the rosiest view of the media. In his recent column for Christianity Today, Colson noted how evangelicals are painted in mainstream media outlets.

Just what is an evangelical, anyway? The picture painted by the media—especially now that it's election time again—is confused and often unflattering. From the infamous "poor, uneducated, and easy to command" label hung on us by The Washington Post years ago, to the perception that we are gay-hating political maniacs in the hip pocket of the Republican Party today, it's not hard to understand that we have an image problem—and that we've let others define us.

Of course, we ourselves are part of the problem. Like those well-intentioned activists who met at a Texas ranch to anoint one of the presidential candidates in the Republican primaries. Or the pair of evangelical professors who wrote an article in The New York Times, criticizing evangelical leaders for their "rejection of knowledge" and for embracing "discredited, ridiculous and even dangerous ideas"—such as believing that homosexual behavior is sinful and that Darwin was wrong.

Perhaps it is time to step back and ask once again what an evangelical is.

In the obituaries, some veteran reporters were able to draw on history to put Colson's legacy in context while others appear clueless of Colson's life outside of the White House, as Mollie showed in some of the early ones yesterday. In many ways, media outlets that didn't shift the obituary assignment from the political reporters to the religion reporters overlooked the bigger picture.

The Los Angeles Times has a strange line in its obituary about Colson's political involvement.

Though always conservative, except when he was advocating for fewer prisons and for the release of nonviolent prisoners, he was not very active politically on the national stage after his White House years.

Wouldn't Colson call his efforts something like "compassionate conservatism"? Also, wasn't he a huge catalyst in some of President Bush's initiatives on AIDS in Africa, prison reform, etc.? At least, Karl Rove thought so.

In contrast, the Associated Press seemed to "get" Colson's later life and legacy.

When Colson emerged from prison, "he had a lot of offers to do other things that would have made him a lot of money", but he wanted to serve people who had been "forgotten" in society, [Mike] Cromartie said.

"I think if he's going to be remembered for anything, he's going to be remembered as a person who had a complete turnaround in his life," he said.

While faith was a large part of Colson's message, he also tackled such topics as prison overpopulation and criticized the death penalty, though he thought it could be justified in rare cases. He said those convicted of nonviolent crimes should be put on community-service projects instead of being locked up.

My one quibble with the last paragraph is that he reads "while faith was a large part of Colson's message, he also tackled..." I would guess that it was "because faith was a large part..." as Colson's policy work was motivated by his faith. At the very least, Colson influenced the way evangelicals engage in politics, culture, evangelism and other areas, drawing on evangelicalism's four emphases (as David Bebbington put them): the Bible, Jesus' death the cross, personal conversion and evangelism. At CT, I put it:

In many ways, Colson's life encapsulated the eclectic nature of evangelicalism. His example shaped how evangelicals would promote ministry and social justice, evangelism and ecumenicism, cultural and political engagement, radio and writing, and scholarship and discipleship.

This was not just one man who influenced one president. This was a towering figure over a large religious movement. Many will have a story to tell about how Colson shaped either their own life or someone they know. Ask an evangelical.

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