Apr 23, 2012

Moments of complication in the life & legacy of Chuck Colson

Chuck Colson's life and work was complicated enough to prove at least a little problematic for easy assessments of his legacy.

He died Saturday, at the age of 80, following complications during brain surgery. His work is now being summed up, his legacy either lauded or lambasted. The interesting and apparently contradictory aspects of his legacy are, however, being ignored.

It's as if the only assessment possible can be whether he was good or bad, and those are the only options. As if the job of an assessment is to decide whether Colson belongs with the sheep or the goats, in the eternal judgement of history.

For some of Colson's fellow evangelicals, for example, his is a straightforward story of redemption, evidence of the "the transforming power of the Holy Spirit," for which "trumpets will be sounding on the other side."

Yet exactly how much he transformed has never really been clear. There were parts of that old, pre-redeemed life he never actually repudiated.

He always "remained ensconced in a particular kind of power." The so-called "hatchet man" and "evil genius" for Richard Nixon -- titles he would played up later in life when emphasizing how much he'd been changed, but which, at other times, he dismissed as media inventions -- he was notoriously willing to do anything to get his man re-elected. After his conversion, he didn't make a point of speaking out against that corruption he'd been a part of, though. He didn't dwell on opposition to dirty politics, or devote himself to arguing that there is a fundamental problem with putting one's faith in political solutions.

Post-conversation Colson was quite comfortable with Karl Rove, who believed his political ends were as worthy of any-means-necessary tactics as the pre-conversion Colson did. Colson never, so far as I can find, condemned that kind of politics.

Immediately after his conversion, asked what led to Watergate, he said, ambiguously, it was failure to "reflect."

In his book Born Again, Colson blamed Watergate on such unlikely culprits as "humanism."

Similarly, he blamed the 2008 financial crisis on "moral relativism," thus insulating his support and conservative evangelical support for the economic system as it was from any criticism. The problem, with Watergate and the financial crisis, was mostly other people's problems. He was not one to go too far in taking personal responsibility, nor did he ever recommend much soul searching on the part of the saved.

Even as he refashioned himself as a leading thinker of evangelicalism in later life, he mostly rehashed ideas, reiterated party lines, and packaged other people's thought into talking points.

Presented and self-perceived, apparently, as a successor to Francis Schaeffer, his work was nevertheless completely devoid of any interest in culture, or history, or philosophy, and he didn't even really feign a curiosity about anything intellectual. Though, of course, he would have opposed the idea that the fundamental solutions to the world's problems were political, he evidenced no doubt in the efficacy of political action, and was a politcs man to the end.

[Edit: Porter Perkins points me to this 2009 interview, where Colson said, "We made a big mistake in the ’80s by politicizing the Gospel … We [thought] that we could solve the deteriorating moral state of our culture by electing good guys. That’s nonsense. Now people are kind of realizing it was a mistake." Considering that, a year later, Colson was decrying evangelical disengagement from politics, and urging the faithful not to grow weary of the cultural wars, it seems, at best, a mixed message].

Some of the mainstream obits, on the other hand, failed to countenance any change in his life at all, seemingly stuck in the 1970s, as if the last three and a half decades of work didn't really figure into his legacy at all. The L.A. Times, for example, makes the weirdly wrong assessment that "he was not very active politically on the national stage after his White House years." The AP couldn't see the connection between his Christian faith the work he did on behalf of prisoners, after his conversion, presenting it as a kind of unexplained gap.

And some critics can't seem to see past Colson's politics. Frank Schaeffer's rant is particularly unhinged in this way. Other, more reasonable voices, speaking only of his position a political leader of the Religious Right, also leave out the more curious aspects of his later career, as if saying what side of things he was on amounted to a complete account.

It's true that, for the most part, Colson was a political hack. In his long career as a columnist and public commentator, he loyally regurgitated the party line. He didn't use his position of influence to push his people to be better. He eschewed nuance, vilified political opponents, and never ever challenged his own side. With a couple of major and really important exceptions.

Colson, unique among prominent American conservatives, argued on behalf of prisoners. This is really unheard of on the right, and very unpopular. Politically, one can't lose being "tough on crime," and no one speaks sympathetically of criminals. But Colson took it as a moral imperative that prisoners' human dignity be recognized. He argued that prisoners' treatment needed to be taken very seriously, and that the Religious Right was wrong not to advocate for the rights of convicts. He even took up the cause of restoring ex-convicts right to vote, which is considered crazy liberal insanity by most conservatives.

Colson's position on prisons and prisoners wasn't liberal, but he did take on the status quo of conservative and evangelical thought. While mostly he just echoed the common wisdom of those he supposedly lead, on this issue, he was willing to take a critical, prophetic position, and speak  against his base. Basically alone among Christian conservatives, he spoke against complacency towards what he believed was an egregious injustice, even though his people didn't think of as very important or serious or an injustice.

There are other instances of this, where Colson's political positions are actually more complicated, and thus more interesting, than the lambastings of his legacy would lead one to believe. His position on environmentalism, for example, is complicated enough and peculiar enough to make many uncomfortable, one way or another, as he tried to stake out a position that was somehow both anti-environmentalism and also pro-environment, and actually serious about the environment. He argued it was a Christian imperative to develop renewable energy sources. Regardless what one thinks about that position or his suggestion for how that should happen, it's at least, I think it's worth saying, more interesting than the simple stories that are being told about his work.

His relationship to Catholics would be another example of this. His attacks on secularism, while, at the same time, arguing on behalf of secularity, would be another. 

Maybe, in the end, these moments of complication and nuance won't serve to budge any final analysis of whether he was good or bad, sheep or goat. The cultural function of such assessments, after all, is to keep the sides they way they are, and people don't generally care about these feathers on the wrong side of the scale. If one loves Colson, or loathes Colson, the ways in which his life's work wasn't always so straightforward, so simple, probably don't matter.

Be that as it may, such simple stories rush to judgement, and miss the most interesting parts.