One of my prized possessions is a hand-written letter Charles Colson wrote me in 1974 when he was a prisoner at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. Colson, the Nixon administration’s “hatchet man” who was inaccurately quoted as saying he would “run over my own grandmother for Richard Nixon” had plead guilty to a charge of obstruction of justice for attempting to defame Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, the defendant in the Pentagon Papers affair.
Many cynics questioned Colson’s sincerity when he announced he had accepted Jesus Christ as Savior, but in his letter to me, he sounded humble and sincere -- two qualities absent from much of the Nixon administration hierarchy.
Before going to prison, Colson joined a small Bible study that included liberal Democratic Senator Harold Hughes of Iowa.
Hughes had run for president in 1972.
A burley man, Hughes resembled a truck driver. He opposed everything the Nixon people stood for, but he said if Colson claimed to be a Christian, that was “good enough for me” and embraced him, literally and figuratively.
Colson was released early from prison because of some problems with his son and because former Minnesota Governor Al Quie offered to serve out the rest of his term for him so he could address those problems.
Apparently Quie found a precedent in an old law that permitted under certain circumstances, an innocent person to take the place of a guilty person and pay the rest of his penalty. Quie never had to go to prison, but his offer of personal sacrifice remind one of that central Christian message: an innocent man lays down his life for a guilty man.
In 1975, I was working as a TV reporter in Houston, Texas.
Colson came to our home, along with his travelling companion, the late Fred Rhodes, a retired high official (I forget his position) in the Federal government. We had a wonderful evening together as Colson had been out sharing his faith at a local church and talking about his new interest, the creation of Prison Fellowship, a non-profit organization that recruits local people to go into state and federal prisons, sharing the Gospel and conducting Bible studies.
Over the years, figures have shown that the recidivism rate among ex-convicts who have “graduated” from Prison Fellowship’s in-prison program is substantially less than secular and every other attempt to “reform” inmates.
Even some hardened media critics came to accept Colson’s conversion as real and sincere. His works spoke for themselves and could not be denied.
On one Easter Sunday several years ago, Chuck invited me to go along with him to a particularly hard prison in Virginia. We visited inmates on death row, as well as the general prison population. I could tell that the inmates identified with Colson because he had been where they were, much like the visit of Johnny Cash to Folsom Prison many years earlier.
Even non-Christians love conversion stories. There is nothing quite like a redeemed life.
The Apostle Paul, one of Colson’s role models, persecuted the church before his famous conversion “on the road to Damascus.” Church “testimonials” have brought tears to many eyes. And Colson’s conversion brought not only tears to many, but as the “least likely” -- short of the president -- to find faith in that administration (some others did later), Colson’s transformation also caused a lot of jaws to drop.
Near the end of his life, Colson felt a compelling need to teach fellow Christians about what he called a “biblical worldview.” He believed that too many were being influenced by the world and its attitudes and that people who follow Jesus need to think as He did and be “transformed by the renewing of their minds.”
Colson’s great legacy isn’t Watergate. It is Prison Fellowship. It is one of those works that while founded by a personality is sufficiently strong to endure without his presence.
Combined with his faithfulness to his wife, Patty, and the example he has left to his children and grandchildren and the readers of his many books and listeners to his radio commentary “Breakpoint,” what better legacy could one leave?
Cal Thomas is America's most widely syndicated newspaper columnist and a Fox News contributor.