Political Animal


April 27, 2012 10:39 AM The Thug Turned Martyr

By Ed Kilgore

I didn’t comment initially on the death of Chuck Colson because I didn’t quite have the time to write an assessment commensurate with this man’s significance. Fortunately, Sarah Posner has done it for us in a solid profile at Salon, making it clear that Colson’s greatest impact was at the very end of his long life—and God help us, well beyond it.

Colson was one of the drafters of the 2009 manifesto, the Manhattan Declaration, which, in hindsight, forecast how the religious right would react to the HHS mandate. Assembled by what was billed as an ecumenical group of evangelicals, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, it was released at the height of the legislative showdown over the Stupak Amendment, offered at the behest of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to eliminate nonexistent federal funding of abortions. The signatories — today they number over half a million — pledged unspecified civil disobedience in response to laws they assert violate religious liberty, the “sanctity of life” and “the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.”
In the Manhattan Declaration, victims are not women who can’t access healthcare or a gay couple that can’t get married. The victims are Christians, and their freedom from laws not crafted from a biblical worldview.

Colson was also co-founder, along with Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (another recently deceased religious figure whose vast influence just keeps increasing) of Catholics and Evangelicals Together, a group that has taken the beachhead of cooperation on the abortion issue and widened it into an alliance encompassing its founders’ unusually aggressive approach to the meaning of “religious liberty.” Some may recall that Neuhaus caused a very big stir in 1996 by suggesting that a “regime” that legalized abortion and same-sex relationships might well forfeit any obligation of obedience from godly citizens. It’s no accident that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ recent “statement on religious liberty” approvingly cites a similar manifesto from CET.

Indeed, the agitation surrounding the contraception coverage mandate clearly reflects the bizarre analogy, indirectly suggested by Neuhaus and directly argued by Colson, that this new conservative religious coalition is like the German Confessing Church, simply declaring its allegience to Christ in the face of totalitarian persecution. Notes Posner:

Colson had the audacity to compare America to Nazi Germany, and to urge his listeners to read Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” which he called “prophetic in its application to today … The destruction of civil society has always been prelude to a totalitarian government.”

To people unfamiliar with or uninterested in Colson’s enormous influence in recent years, he’ll always be remembered as the ugly face of Watergate, the proud thug who went to prison for his misdeeds and there found faith, subsequently establishing a prison ministry. But that was simply the prologue to Colson’s true calling as a self-proclaimed martyr leading others to demand theocracy in the name of liberty.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Basilisc on April 27, 2012 11:04 AM:

    I'd have more admiration for Colson if he had shown more repentence, namely by devoting his time after prison to advocating more transparency in campaign finance, higher ethical standards in govt etc. Instead he basically pursued hard-knuckle politics through other means.

  • paul on April 27, 2012 11:08 AM:

    I never for one minute believed Colson was sincere in his religious convictions.

    The key for me was that his confessional book only confessed to whatever he had already been caught doing. He never fessed up about bad things that others later revealed. Other watergate criminals admitted to their bad behavior beyond what they were conficted of.

    Colson's "christianity" was Republican dirty politics disguised as morality. He went from one scam to the next.

  • c u n d gulag on April 27, 2012 11:09 AM:

    Here's an "Idiot's Guide to Religious Freedom in America:"

    You religious people get freedom OF religion!
    To worship, within some forms of societal bounds and norms, who, what, when, where, why, and how, you like, as long as you don't break any generally agreed upon laws - like rites involving murder, torture, sexual abuse of adults and minors, slavery, cannibalism, etc. Hell, if it were up to me, polygamy would be ok - as long as it was for both sexes.

    And the rest of us, we get freedom FROM your particular religion - to practice our own, or to practice none at all.

    You like chocolate ice-cream?
    Fine, eat all of it you want.

    But you don't get to tell me, a fan of vanilla, or a person who doesn't eat ice-cream at all, that WE have to eat the chocolate ice-cream you want to force-feed us 'down our throats.'

    So, go with God.
    Your God.
    And leave the rest of us the f*ck alone.

  • boatboy_srq on April 27, 2012 11:12 AM:

    This is why FundiEvangelical wingnuts drive me crazy. By their rationale, you can be as greedy, manipulative, prejudiced and discriminatory as you like, as long as you do it for Jeebus.

    Yet another rabbi passing the Samaritan, in my book.

  • c u n d gulag on April 27, 2012 11:18 AM:

    Colson found a way to rehab his bad name, and make a lot of money at the same time, by grifting prisoners and their families of their money by using The Bible and Christ.

    And the government, too, because this BS prison grift he had going, was one of the early Christian outreach programs which evolved into "Faith-base Initiatives," where religious loons got tax money for their grifting.

    I wish there was a Hell, because right now, he'd be as far from Jesus as Jesus could get him - and Satan and his minions would be doing things even more horrible to him than anything mortal man could ever imagine.

  • jrosen on April 27, 2012 11:34 AM:

    "Come to Jesus" --- a get-out-of-hell-free card that can be played over and over again. Do whatever sleazy trick or scam that you can come up with, then accept Jesus as your "personal savior" (whatever the hell that means) and...presto! ... you are clean to do the next dirty thing, sure in your own tiny mind that you are in the clear.

    I am never sure whether the people who peddle this con believe it themselves or not. I think I'd prefer the latter, because ultimately they are less dangerous. They will, as I suspect Rupert Murdoch is, willing to switch sides the moment they smell an advantage. Whereas the former type, the true believers, will go down with the ship waving their flags defiantly and singing hosannas. Unfortunately, we are on the ship too and will go down with them.

  • walt on April 27, 2012 11:54 AM:

    The idea that liberals want to destroy "civil society" is fascinating in the current context of of right-wing agitprop against education, health care, the environment, and the safety net. Catholic bishops might want to review the Sermon on the Mount to ponder who Jesus would deny compassion and love. But the Christianity-industrial complex needs global amnesia to sell its cruelty disguised as "faith".

  • wheresthebeef on April 27, 2012 12:23 PM:

    I've said it before and I'll say it again...Chuck Colson was a miserable P.O.S.whose late-life "conversion" to the cult of Jeebus was a cynical ploy to try to erase his true legacy as Richard Nixon's hatchet man. The guy who tried to recruit union thugs to play whack-a-mole on the heads of anti-war protesters stuck around for far longer than would have been possible if there truly were a God in heaven. See ya, wouldn't wanna be ya.

  • TCinLA on April 27, 2012 12:41 PM:

    Personally, I hope Colson is roasting on the Ninth Level of Hell for eternity like the "Good Republican" he is. Too bad the rest of the Nixton thugs (G. Gordon Liddy and Karl Rove most prominently) haven't joined ol' Chuckie is becoming "good Republicans." Look back the past 44 years and it becomes clear just exactly how Nixon was the Fount of All Evil - every Republican scandal, every report of Republican treason, every report of far right attempts to overthrow our government, has a Watergate criminal's name prominently in the mix.

  • TCinLA on April 27, 2012 12:45 PM:

    c u n d gulag: good to see you back. Hope all is well since your dad's passing. Went through that 24 years ago, feels like it was yesterday, still miss him.

  • Frank Wilhoit on April 27, 2012 12:51 PM:

    Colson doesn't matter, but there is a critical mass of Americans who think that "deeply-held beliefs" (as tokens of tribal affiliation) ought to trump the rule of law. Call it "faith-based nullification", because that is what it is. We've lost that fight, overwhelmingly; all we can do now is leave breadcrumbs for future historians.

  • Elie on April 27, 2012 1:03 PM:

    There has always been a lot of crazy tied up with religion... I think that its just one version of the mapping that mental illness/abnormalities can take that manifests as profound exceptionalism, radical entitlement and grandiosity. Its just more socially acceptable in our country as a way to dominate and shape thought and make people obey. That said, its not religion per se that is the curse, but the underlying need and sickness in many human brains. I truly believe that there are lots and lots of high functioning crazy people and we are unaware of the full implications of this in our institutions -- from business, to government, to social, military, -- and of course, religion. It is damned scary. Maybe that is the little gene in humans that triggers when there are too many of us on this planet and is a built in way to make sure humans are only successful for a while.

  • c u n d gulag on April 27, 2012 1:44 PM:

    We're all holing up the best we can. He and I were very close.

    Next month will really be fun when we have to pay for the funeral, county tax, oil, propane, etc. - all without my Mom's SS check. She now gets my Pop's, but we lose hers.

    Interesting times ahead... :-)

    We live in a really f*cked-up country.

  • c u n d gulag on April 27, 2012 1:46 PM:

    "Holding," not, 'holing.'

    Ken oui haz "Edit," pleeze?

  • tcinaz on April 27, 2012 4:47 PM:

    "Colson had the audacity to compare America to Nazi Germany, and to urge his listeners to read Hannah Arendt’s “'The Origins of Totalitarianism,'” which he called “prophetic in its application to today … The destruction of civil society has always been prelude to a totalitarian government.'” Colson was, of course,correct about the nazificaton of this country. How could he not be? He, and the Nixon gang of thugs that Watergate revealed, were the heart of the movement. The sad thing is that some like him, and Dick Cheney, who should never have been heard from again, benefited from the All-American tendency to forgive and forget white collar crime, allowing reprobates like Colson and Cheney to resurface to continue their harm. Once a rattler, always poisonous.

  • Big River Bandido on April 27, 2012 6:08 PM:

    Funny, I remember Chuck Colson. But I sure don't recognize that scumbag from all the obituaries.

  • HMDK on April 27, 2012 7:31 PM:

    If your government restrains you from believing and practicing your religion (without reasonable bounds; I hope we're all clear that human sacrifice would be a no-no.), it is wrong.
    If your government fails to OBEY ALL YOUR RELIGIOUS LAWS AND BELIEFS in the course of it's operation, then NO it hasn't violated your freedom of religion. You're free to practice. But the government and all the other people of other faiths or none at all, aren't obligated to worship as YOU please. That's the whole idea of a free society.
    This should be obvious to all, and it is. But to theocrats it's just not quite enough to -feel- superior. They want the force of theocratic law behind it.Which always makes me wonder: why do people SO CERTAIN of their particular faith and its truth and power need to enact laws in the mortal realm? Shouldn't the fact that A GOD being behind be enough?

  • RabbisOK on April 27, 2012 8:38 PM:

    "Yet another rabbi passing the Samaritan, in my book."

    boatboy_srq, your book isn't the Gospel of Like, then, or maybe it has a garbled Parable of the Good Samaritan in chapter 10. In the parable, the man robbed and left for dead is passed by first by a priest, then by a Levite before the Samaritan comes to his rescue. No rabbi (or Pharisee) passes anyone by in the story. Got a problem with rabbis?

  • Chuck on April 27, 2012 11:32 PM:

    I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off.
    So I ran over and said "Stop! Don't do it!"
    "Why shouldn't I?" he said.
    "Well, there's so much to live for!"
    "Like what?"
    "Well... are you religious?" He said yes.
    I said, "Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?"
    "Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?
    "Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"
    "Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"
    "Baptist Church of God!"
    "Me too! Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you reformed Baptist Church of God?"
    "Reformed Baptist Church of God!"
    "Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?"
    He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!"
    I said, "Die, heretic scum", and pushed him off.

  • Col Bat Guano on April 28, 2012 12:39 AM:

    Sometimes, I wish I believed in hell.

  • Bob on April 30, 2012 6:51 PM:

    Colson seemed to get one thing right when he said "The destruction of civil society has always been prelude to a totalitarian government.” The unintended irony is that those who seek to promote Christian ideology as public policy are wreaking far more havoc on civil society than "godless" and other liberals.