Presidential medal for Charles Colson

President Bush just bestowed Presidential citizenship medals on 24 recipients, including key Religious Right figures Charles Colson (Prison Fellowship) and Robert George (Princeton). Colson, of course, is the Watergate felon who had a repentance and religious conversion; “after serving his sentence,” notes AP, “Colson founded Prison Fellowship in 1976, which conducts outreach to prisoners, ex-convicts, crime victims and their families.” Colson’s prison reform efforts have been praised from many quarters, often in extravagant terms, and I have no doubt that some portion of that praise is deserved, as with his efforts to call attention to abusive prison conditions (seldom a popular cause for a conservative to take up). At the same time, as David Plotz noted in a good 2000 Slate profile:

Secular admirers overlook the central fact about Colson’s work: He is a hard-core evangelist. Colson seeks to convert prisoners to Christianity, not necessarily to rehabilitate them. If they repair their lives, all the better, but souls matter most. This fact shadows Colson’s ambitious Inner Change project. Colson’s volunteers run the daily lives of about 200 Texas inmates. From dawn to dusk, the inmates attend prayer meetings, Bible study, and chapel. All activities are explicitly evangelical and Protestant. Though Inner Change is being widely praised and imitated, Muslims in the program complain of ostracism, and civil libertarians are alarmed at the project’s aggressive promotion of Christianity.

People interested in good governance are probably more willing to countenance church-state blurring in prison and corrections than in most other realms of government action, if only because the “normal” outcomes are so grim that you’d think mixing in religiosity could hardly make matters worse. If you can pull in a cadre of law-abiding outsiders who care about prisoners’ welfare, is it really so terrible if a certain amount of sermonizing and conversion-pressure goes on, as at an old-style Skid Row mission? So I’ve never managed to get very agitated about the arguable church-state violations. On the other hand, I get much more worried at reports (like this from 2003 by Mark Kleiman, also in Slate) that the program’s reputed success depends on cherry-picking statistics and cooked numbers: “Overall, the 177 entrants [in Colson’s much-lauded Texas program] did a little bit worse than the controls.”

At any rate, Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings and Megan McArdle at The Atlantic are now engaged in a controversy over whether Colson was an appropriate pick for the Medal. Hilzoy recites some of the crimes Colson committed as Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man”, when he was among the hardest and nastiest of a hard and nasty crew:

The one episode that will always sum up Chuck Colson for me is his plan to firebomb the Brookings Institution.

This naturally evokes comparisons to Bill Ayers, to which Megan McArdle’s response is: c’mon, Colson’s repented of his Nixon-era crimes, in what even most of his critics admit is a sincere way. And he served time. He would never firebomb the Brookings Institution now, or so much as toss a water balloon into its lobby. Is there to be no forgiveness, no prospect of regaining public stature through later acts of idealism?

I’m not sure what to think of all this. I know several scholars at Brookings, and haven’t always entirely agreed with the thrust of their work, but I don’t think it’s ever occurred to me to express my disagreements in as drastic a fashion as Colson did. (In the press coverage of his presidential medal, no reporter seems to have called anyone at Brookings to get a reaction.) But maybe bygones should be bygones.

What I know bothers me about Colson is what he is now: a seasoned wheeler-dealer who takes a hand in almost all of the theological Right’s most deplorable causes, from attacking Darwin, misrepresenting science and getting creationism into the schools (he’s been a prolific advocate of so-called Intelligent Design), through hysterical and hectic attacks on secularism (which he blamed for the Enron financial scandal; no doubt he’s dusting off the theory to explain today’s financial crisis); and on through pertinacious and frivolous litigation, as in a case I’ve written about at my main site, in which Colson’s been a leading promoter of prolonged and meritless litigation in a custody case for the purpose of making anti-gay points. The case is one in which a client represented by the misnamed religious-right group Liberty Counsel has obstinately persisted in violating a valid court order; I see (via Box Turtle Bulletin) that the U.S. Supreme Court has now declined for the fifth time to hear an appeal by Liberty Counsel trying to stave off its loss in the Miller-Jenkins case.

For a while after his conversion, Colson was praised for a rhetorical style that came across as softer and more conciliatory than many of his colleagues. But that’s changed too; now he preaches culture war with the best of them. I know he was a hard and ruthless man when he served Nixon, and I see little evidence to indicate that he is anything but a hard and ruthless man now. I wish I could believe that he got a medal despite all these aspects, but I much fear that his candidacy reached the President’s desk because of them.

[Note added: while Colson has admitted to many other Watergate crimes, he’s reportedly disputed the accuracy of at least some of the Brookings accusations, which emerged as part of other Watergate figures’ testimony and have since then been widely reported in many mainstream publications as fact.]

About Walter Olson

Fellow at a think tank in the Northeast specializing in law. Websites include overlawyered.com. Former columnist for Reason and Times Online (U.K.), contributor to National Review, etc.
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