The death of Charles W. “Chuck” Colson drew remembrances from many national and Christian leaders who praised the former political operative’s work in prison ministry, Evangelical-Catholic dialogue and religious freedom advocacy.
“There can be little doubt that Chuck Colson was one of the most important public Christian figures in recent decades. He gave gravitas to the new emergent Christian Right,” R.R. Reno, editor of the interreligious journal “First Things,” told CNA April 23.
“Like Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Chuck recognized that our increasingly secular liberal elites posed a threat to the uniquely religious character of American culture,” Reno said.
“This did not mean he thought the differences between Protestants and Catholics are irrelevant, but he saw that the common challenge joins us together.”
Colson died at a Falls Church, Va. hospital on April 21 at the age of 80. The Naples, Fla. resident became ill March 30 while speaking at a Colson Center of Christian Worldview conference in Lansdowne, Va. He was treated for a brain hemorrhage earlier this month.
A former Marine, Colson served as a Republican political strategist and a self-described “hatchet man” who attacked the enemies of President Richard Nixon. He helped organize illegal actions to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, a former Pentagon official suspected of leaking a classified history of the Vietnam War to the media, The Washington Post reports.
In August 1973, during intense legal scrutiny amid the Watergate scandals, Colson converted to Christianity. In 1974, he pled guilty to charges of obstruction of justice related to the Ellsberg case and served seven months of a one to three-year sentence in a federal prison in Alabama.
He left prison convinced of the need to crusade for U.S. prison reform including an end to inhumane conditions and prison rape. In 1976 he founded Prison Fellowship, which at its peak attracted 50,000 prison ministry volunteers. It currently has a presence in 100 countries around the world.
Colson then became involved in inter-Christian dialogue and was a signatory to the 1994 document Evangelicals and Catholics Together. He was a key author of the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, which called on Christians to defend human life, traditional marriage and religious freedom. The declaration attracted half a million signatories.
Reno praised Colson for keeping religious faith “at the center of the public witness of Christians who felt called to engage in politics.”
According to the editor, Colson saw that when Protestants and Catholics are joined to “make common cause for the moral truths of the Gospel” they can “rediscover what we share as a common Christian faith.”
Catholic political commentator George Weigel remembered Colson’s “absolute commitment” to reconciling Christian divisions.
“Chuck Colson did not invent the evangelical-Catholic alliance that is one of the most potent cultural forces in 21st century American politics; but he legitimated it for vast numbers of evangelicals who were not altogether sure, twenty-some years, that Catholics were their brothers and sisters in Christ,” he said in a statement provided to CNA.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said Colson “inspired tens of thousands of volunteers to heed the words of Jesus to visit Him in prison.”
“By his example, he taught Christians how to fully integrate one's Christian faith with a role in the public realm,” Perkins added. “Chuck Colson challenged us to follow God's instruction to be salt and light in every place that we set our feet.”
Colson’s eulogists included House Speaker John Boehner.
“He was a man who experienced tremendous lows yet went on to spark a movement of ideas and people focused on spiritual transformation,” Boehner said April 21.
“Through the full picture of the life Chuck Colson led, Americans saw that a broken man can accept the gift of redemption and embrace a new life devoted to the service and redemption of others. This will be his legacy.”
Colson is survived by Patty, his wife of 48 years, three children, and five grandchildren.