In the month since the passing of Charles W. “Chuck” Colson, the Special Counsel for President Nixon who subsequently became one of Christian evangelism’s most dynamic figures, there has been much written about his two careers in politics and religion. Most of what has been written about his work after 1973 focuses on his groundbreaking efforts to rehabilitate the incarcerated through the Prison Fellowship organization he founded.
But Chuck Colson was also a very important participant when it came to building bridges between members of the Roman Catholic Church and the evangelical Protestant community. In a year when former Senator Rick Santorum, a Catholic, found the most fervent supporters of his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination among conservative Protestants in the South and Midwest, it may be surprising to many Americans to know that such a situation could hardly have seemed probable, or even possible, as late as the 1960s and 1970s or even 1980s. That it became possible for those in the evangelical community to find common cause among traditionalist Catholics – or members of the Latter-Day Saints – is in considerable part the result of the ties that Colson helped build.
A useful account of Colson’s achievement in this regard is at the website of First Things, the magazine founded by the late Richard J. Neuhaus and now edited by George Weigel, author of the best-known biography of Pope John Paul II and other books about Catholicism. Weigel describes how Colson reached across a centuries-old divide:
Our friendship and collaboration began in the early 1990s, when Herb Schlossberg, the evangelical author, buttonholed me at a Washington reception and expressed concern about the ongoing fracture between Catholics and evangelical Protestants, two communities that Herb thought should be working together to shore up America’s public culture. I mentioned Herb’s concern to Richard John Neuhaus; Neuhaus called Colson; and within a matter of months “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” was born.
What began as co-belligerency in the American culture-war soon evolved in ways none of us had anticipated. Led by Neuhaus and Colson, and prodded by such towering intellects as Avery Dulles, S.J., and J. I. Packer, “ECT,” as we called it, developed into what was arguably the most important theological encounter ever between evangelical Protestant and Catholics. Issues that we had once imagined completely off-the-table—Mary; the communion of saints; justification—were not only broached but examined, pondered and prayed over. And the result was not only a deepening of fellowship but a refinement of thought. That a leading evangelical theologian should today be working on a book on Mary-for-evangelicals says something about the miles traveled, and the centuries of misunderstanding bridged, in those conversations.
Weigel’s blogpost serves to remind us what an extraordinary impact Chuck Colson made in the last four decades. This was also true of the memorial service for Colson last Wednesday in Washington’s venerable National Cathedral, where thousands from all social backgrounds and creeds commemorated his achievements. At the Christian Post’s site, Katherine Phan recounts one especially moving moment:
His daughter, Emily Colson, said the memorial was a celebration for a life “well-lived.” She testified that Colson always put God first and his family next. Still, he was “fully present” for his family, calling her once a day to talk and always clearing his schedule to spend time with his 21-year-old grandson Max, who is diagnosed with autism.
Emily called upon those who have been touched by Colson’s life to carry on her father’s legacy.
“What will we do in the shadow of such a great role model? There is work to be done. I encourage you to continue the work my father has done: Do the right thing. Seek the truth. Defend the weak. Live courageous lives,” she said.
Robert Nedelkoff is a writer for the Richard Nixon Foundation.