U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Born Again Politics

Today’s New York Times reports the passing of Charles W. Colson

I don’t usually think about Charles Colson, but I was just thinking of him yesterday.

Among the primary sources I was considering for my U.S. intellectual history reading list was Mary McCarthy’s shrewd shredding of the smaller-than-life players in the Watergate scandal, The Mask of State: Watergate Portraits (1974).  However, McCarthy’s sharp, smart text ended up on the cutting-room floor.  I crossed it off just yesterday morning; I need that spot for something else. 

I don’t plan on replacing McCarthy’s slim volume with Colson’s bloated Born Again.  Nevertheless, I think it is worthwhile to consider the significant impact that Colson’s conversion narrative — not just the book, but the entire post-prison trajectory of his life story — seems to have had on the fractious, fractured, transformed and transforming political alliances and alignments growing out of the 1970s.

I say that Colson “seems to have had” a significant impact simply because I don’t want to appear to be putting forward some kind of “great man theory” to explain the rise of the Religious Right and its growing identification with the Republican party.  How would I explain this moment in American cultural history?  I must defer to the expertise of my fellow bloggers — along with a few frequent commenters here — who have the shifting political, social and cultural landscapes of the 1970s in much sharper focus.  

But Colson might serve as a fitting symbol for all that coalesced in the political rise of the Religious Right.  And I suppose that Colson must have recognized this fact at the time.  Just as Saint Augustine’s conversion to chastity did not seem to diminish his polemical skills, so Charles Colson’s conversion to charity — and by “charity” I mean both “philanthropy” and “Christian love” — did not seem to dull his political instincts.

I am not questioning the sincerity or thoroughness of either conversion; I simply note that savvy sinners, once converted, can make for very savvy saints.  And Charles Colson was a savvy spokesman for what seemed to be a new kind of politics.  He was someone with a compelling story of personal conversion who became one of the standard bearers leading a swell-tide of religious conservatives, mostly Evangelical, seeking to convert their sense of moral solidarity into political clout.  Colson was apparently committed to using at least some of that clout to (re?) privatize and (re?) Christianize the task of alleviating social ills, and he sought to redirect public funds to that purpose.

“Every man’s death diminishes me,” wrote John Donne, the converted libertine.  And that is my sentiment as well.  I hope no one imagines that my reflections about the nature or significance of the political movement which Colson symbolized and in some ways helped to shape arise from some kind of ill will — or, on the other hand, allegiance — towards the man or the people who mourn him.  I simply want to understand how his life and life-work fit into a larger cultural narrative.

Did Colson and his fellow standard-bearers usher in something new in the American political landscape?  Or was this an older politics born again? Was this Progressivism chasing its own tail?  Or was this a hollowed-out Populism, hard-bitten, left behind, and biting back?

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I think Winifred Sullivan, in her book Prison Relgion, does a good job of connecting Colson’s work to the rise of private, religious treatment programs in prisons. However, I think his narrative is vital for those thinking about the rise of the carceral state- in presenting himself as a prison success story, Colson offered an alternative to the more radical political prisoners of the era (Angela Davis etc.). Colson’s narrative of going to prison to be punished complements the emergent punitive turn in incarceration, and likely legimized it (especially for the Right) in the face of prominent challenges to the institution of the prison– Colson was incarcerated in a prison culture post-Attica, after all.

  2. Melanie, I think you’re right. Colson symbolized the “redemptive value” of incarceration — a success story of the penitentiary as a place of repentance and renewal.

    But he did more than that, it seems. Yesterday evening I came across an excellent piece by Max Blumenthal reviewing the 2005 Colson biography. Blumenthal describes Colson’s activism on behalf of “zero tolerance” crime crackdowns and his strong support of the death penalty.

    Born Again, Again

    Blumenthal confirms my basic sense of the man: Colson may have laid down the burden of his sins at the foot of the cross, but he didn’t leave his political acumen behind. He was a sharp strategist and knew how to manage a message and silence an unwelcome messenger. He would have been a real asset to any group seeking to wield influence in Washington.

    Any recommendations for a good history of the beginnings of the Evangelical / Christian right lobby — or is that yet to be written?

  3. I wanted to add this post from Frank Schaeffer’s blog to the conversation [h/t Tim Lacy].

    (Though most of the folks reading this probably know this already, Schaeffer is a former Evangelical Protestant member of the religious right who is now politically moderate and Greek Orthodox. His father, Francis Schaeffer, was one of the single most important figures in the creation of the modern Religious Right.)

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