One of the figures who most offers wisdom to modern evangelicals in the political realm is a man who famously lost his lofty place in it. Chuck Colson (1931-2012) was the classic American success story. Born a “swamp Yankee” in Boston, he began serving President Richard Nixon as special counsel in 1969. He left the administration in 1973, only to be implicated in the Watergate scandal. Colson went to prison in 1974.
He was released in 1975 and began a prolific career as a social reformer and a public-square witness. In 2015, on the fortieth anniversary of his release, his life and subsequent career—told more fully in my new book—provide three ways forward for evangelicals in politics.
1. Reach the Heart Through a Narrative of Hope
Colson gained an appreciation for the plight of the prisoner by becoming one. He saw the trajectory of the average inmate and knew that many convicts had effectively died to the outside world. It was in these terrible conditions that Colson saw just how propulsive hope could be. When released early from his three-year term in winter 1975, Colson went right back into prison. For the next four decades, Colson led Prison Fellowship and visited one convict after another, calling the angry, malformed, and forgotten to the hope of conversion.
Colson’s spiritual program resembles that of President Ronald Reagan’s political platform. More than his tough quips, movie-star looks, and brass-knuckle dealings, Reagan appealed to the best instincts of his hearers, and gave them a vision of national solidarity and flourishing. What Reagan did in the press conference, Colson did in the prison cell. He looked white-collar criminals and death-row inmates in the eye, and told them all the same story. It started with judgment, even the judgment of a Roman cross, and ended with hope, resurrection hope.
America finds itself embroiled in partisan division today. Now more than ever, it is easy for evangelicals to embrace a bitter, vitriolic style. In his day, Colson pulled no punches, but the core of his message was hope. Evangelicals wishing to make a dent in politics would do well to emulate his example. Instead of dehumanizing our opponents, we can give them something far more persuasive: a vision of their inherent value and worth, a picture of an American future guided by wisdom, love, and virtue. Evangelicals can tap the deep human desire that cries out to leaders, Do not tell us who we no longer are; tell us what we can be. Then, help us become something greater than we are.
2. Do the Hard Work Necessary to Make Change
The truly high-minded, Colson knew, have callouses on their hands. All his life, Colson practiced this dual-pronged approach. He challenged the lowly and broken to rise even as he pulled the levers necessary to lift them up. Under his leadership, Prison Fellowship went from an organization funded solely by his book earnings to a non-profit organization with a $50 million budget, the largest prison ministry in the world.
This model speaks today. Too often in major campaigns, evangelicals and conservatives are outgunned. Let us make this crystal clear: if our will to win is weaker than those who compete with us, we should only expect to lose. The path forward for Christian political involvement is uphill, but if many men and women of good faith are willing to pay the price to persuade minds, turn out voters, and address real needs, much ground can be made up and taken. Our will determines much. If the times seem evil, we simply have that much more opportunity to shovel.
3. Remember the Importance of Political Involvement
Colson knew that, theologically, Christians have more reason to care about their neighbor than any other person. Christians believe that humanity is made in the image of God and designed to flourish (Genesis 1:26-27). Because of sin, our lives lie under a curse, a death sentence that God has lifted in Jesus Christ. Christians do not care only about themselves; we seek the wellbeing of our neighbor in fulfillment of the second greatest commandment (Matt. 22:37). We do not always live up to our lofty charter. Our goal, however, is to instantiate virtue wherever we can, to plant it in public.
This is a high calling, if a difficult one. Policies need championing. Bills need shaping. Committees need chairing. Needs abound, but every leadership vacuum is an opportunity. We are the people who take up difficult causes and oppose foregone conclusions. We believe—and know—that our work echoes into eternity and is guided by an unseen hand.
Faith does not cause our feet to hover a few inches over the dirt. The gospel of Jesus Christ, the message of redemption Colson thrilled to preach, does the opposite. It puts boots on the ground.
Put Your Hands to the Plough
Evangelicals have suffered political defeats in recent days, some of them bracing. I’m reminded of a story I heard about Colson from those close to him. Some years back, Colson showed visible dejection at a political loss. His shoulders slumped. This was unusual for him. The man who seemed invincibly optimistic had reached his breaking point.
The next morning, however, Colson was up early at his kitchen table. He had a legal pad out, and he was scrawling on it furiously. The vigor was back; the shoulders weren’t slumped any longer. There was fire in his eyes once more.
This anecdote speaks to us, I think. The takeaway is simple: it is time to get the legal pad out. There is work to do. This is not only the Colson way; this is the way forward for us.