Q&A: Religious Leader Chuck Colson

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Chuck Colson

Chuck Colson has spent a lifetime atoning for his involvement in the Watergate cover-up. The founder of Prison Fellowship has spent more than three decades working with prisoners in more than 100 countries, and he has mentored generations of conservative Evangelical leaders. This month he launched the Chuck Colson Center, an online research and education center that he calls "the Lexis-Nexis of resources on the Christian worldview." The last of the original religious-right leaders still actively engaged with the movement, Colson spoke with TIME about his latest endeavor, why he thinks churches have failed society and the biggest mistake the religious right made.

You say you've been wanting to create this center for decades. What first prompted the project?
It goes back to the earliest days of our prison ministry. At the end of the first year, we'd gotten to all 42 federal prisons. But in that time, they'd built 10 more. As fast as we would get a Bible study started, they'd build a new prison. I realized that we could be working in the prisons forever and doing good work, but it wouldn't matter if we didn't address the bigger cultural questions, the things that were causing crime. So many of these kids in prison came from broken families. They were products of a failed worldview — that modernity would make everything better.

But most of your resources are for pastors and others in the church who could have been teaching another kind of worldview all along. Why do you think they have failed to do that?
The church has fallen into a therapeutic model. It believes its job is to make people happy and take care of their problems. It's a feel-good kind of Christianity. I don't think the job of the church is to make people happy. I think it's to make them holy.

Is part of the problem the fact that so many Evangelical churches focus almost exclusively on getting people to the moment of being saved and don't give them the tools on how to actually live as Christians?
That's it. [Megachurch pastor] Bill Hybels was right two years ago when he released a study about the people coming into his church. It turned out he had been great at recruiting people, but they hadn't grown and matured once they were there. He had every reason to be really concerned about the methodology of his own church. If you go to his church now, you'll see a lot more teaching going on, a lot more discipleship.

But what you're advocating is a tougher form of Christianity. Is that too much of a challenge for many people?
A lot of people don't want to bother with it. [Many] people have reduced the whole Christian faith to just a relationship with Jesus. That strips the faith of its doctrine, its sovereign nature. The biggest problem is getting people to be serious about what they profess to believe.

In recent years, religious leaders have often preached about how to apply a Christian worldview to, say, making a political decision to vote for a certain kind of candidate.
We made a big mistake in the '80s by politicizing the Gospel. We ought to be engaged in politics, we ought to be good citizens, we ought to care about justice. But we have to be careful not to get into partisan alignment. 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. A lot of people are going back and saying, "Let's just take care of the church and tend to our knitting."

Both positions are wrong. There's an intelligent way to engage the culture in every area, including politics. But you can't fix politics or culture unless you fix the church. What we're seeing in society today is a direct consequence of the church failing to be the church.

Has there ever been a time when you think religious people got the balance right by engaging without becoming entangled?
Yes. What happened in 18th and 19th century England, with the Wesley Movement and with William Wilberforce, was ideal. Wilberforce and others formed hundreds of small societies for improving human welfare, preventing cruelty to animals, reforming poorhouses and prisons. And there were great Christian leaders in politics as well. In that period, Christians were not divided by political parties.

Christians aren't divided by political parties today, and yet there is definitely division. It's not unusual to run across liberals who say there's no way Jesus would ever be a Republican, or conservatives who preach that it's not possible to be both a good Christian and a Democrat.
That's dreadful. It's so much bigger than politics. Jesus would have seen the Republican and Democratic parties like the money changers in the temple. They just didn't get it. Now, I'm going to vote for a pro-life candidate if given the choice. But that has nothing to do with partisanship. Democrats do a lot of very good things that we should be supporting. And I say that as a conservative.