A diatribe against the late evangelist highlights his virtues.
Voices across the religious and political spectrum have hailed the legacy of Charles Colson, the former Nixon White House staffer who, after his Watergate-related imprisonment, founded a global evangelical ministry for prison inmates.
One exception is Franky Schaeffer, a self-described regretful founder of the Religious Right and son of the late great evangelical theologian, who rejected his father’s legacy and now spits venom at seriously religious people, on his blog, in his books, and sometimes for The Huffington Post.
“Wherever Nixon is today he must be welcoming a true son of far right dirty politics to eternity with a ‘Job well done,’” Schaeffer snarked. An earlier draft of his diatribe headlined that Colson had “gone to his reward,” implying an eternity other than Heaven. But even in his reposted new draft, Schaeffer was churlish: “Evangelical Christianity lost one of its most beloved and bigoted homophobic and misogynistic voices with the death of Charles W. ‘Chuck’ Colson, a Watergate felon who converted to ‘evangelicalism’ but never lost his taste for dirty political tricks against opponents.”
Bitter towards his devout parents and most of his old allies and friends, Schaeffer conspiratorially claims that conservative religious activists target abortion and same sex marriage primarily to trick working class traditionalists into voting Republican. Or as he elegantly claims of Colson: “Few men have done more to trade (betray?) the gospel of love for the gospel of empowering corporate America and greed through the misuse of the so-called culture war issues to get lower middle class whites to vote against their own economic interests in the name of ‘family values.’”
Himself now cynical and unmoored from any transcendent moral tradition, Schaeffer assumes that his targets, including Colson, are similarly jaded.
But if Colson’s conversion and over 35-year evangelical ministry were other than genuine, he was a master performer. Across 4 decades, Colson’s “Prison Fellowship” touched hundreds of thousands of lives around the world. Prison inmates neither vote nor typically are potential contributors. But Colson made his life’s work offering otherwise hopeless and forgotten people the hope of transformation that he found in the Gospel as he faced incarceration. He cheerfully proclaimed himself a former miscreant who was delivered solely by God’s grace. As driven and focused in ministry as he was as Nixon’s ostensible “hatchet man,” Colson was a joyful warrior.
Seemingly consumed by his own demons, and himself rarely evincing any joy as he trashes family and former friends, Schaeffer maybe resents the opposite trajectory of Colson’s life compared to his. Literally dying with his boots on at age 80, falling ill at a conference he organized after delivering his final speech, Colson’s departure from this world was the perfect finale for an evangelist and social reformer. It recalls pious British Prime Minister William Gladstone’s own stated wish to die while worshipping in a church, or former President John Quincy Adams, exerting himself for abolition, collapsing on the U.S. House of Representatives floor while delivering his final oration.
Unlike the power obsessed, Religious Right stereotype preferred by Schaeffer, Colson emphasized private ministry over political action. Chastened by his own role in the Nixon Administration, Colson warned fellow evangelicals not to rely on the pursuit of power. In his last speech, delivered at the Wilberforce Weekend Conference that he named after his hero, the great British abolitionist, Colson insisted: “Elections can’t solve the problem we’ve got.” Instead, believers should work through their churches to redeem individuals and the culture. “Look in the mirror, that’s where the problem is,” he suggested, with passive churches in mind. “This is a moment when the time is right for a movement of God’s people under the power of the Holy Spirit to begin to impact the culture we live in.”
Faith in a transcendent authority superseding the New York Times, Hollywood, or the latest academic fads, is always infuriating to the Left, which typically searches for the ostensibly REAL agenda motivating traditional religious believers in America.
In his rambling anti-tribute to Colson, Schaeffer denounced Colson and all of the “neo-conservative/Roman Catholic” friends who gave a gloss of “intellectual respectability and aid and comfort to what were nothing more than oppressive ideas rooted in an anti-Constitutional theocratic far right wish list for changes that were supposed to roll back the parts of the democratic processes - say Roe v. Wade, women's rights and gay rights -- that far right Catholics and Protestants didn't approve of.”
Schaeffer thinks Colson was plotting theocracy as he preached to, prayed with, and wept among thousands of prison inmates who were his chief focus across the decades since his own release from prison. The allegation speaks more of Schaeffer than Colson. But all of the lavish tributes showering upon Colson’s memory may have discomfited Colson, remembering the Gospel warning to beware when all men speak well of you.
In contrast, Schaeffer’s hatefully absurd diatribe maybe would have provoked an appreciative and amused smile. And maybe Colson is now consulting with Schaeffer’s late father, prayerfully plotting the return of a sadly wayward son.
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