Charles Colson, the Watergate conspirator turned prison evangelist and Christian conservative activist, died yesterday.

The real news has been the reaction to word of his death, which has ranged from superficial reminiscences of his power as an evangelist on the right to vicious ad hominem attacks, including calls for his eternal damnation, on the left. Maybe I’ve just missed the thoughtful commentators so far. If you’re looking for a comprehensive overview of reactions, look elsewhere; I don’t have the time to review all the relevant material and write something coherent about it, and any dedicated fact-checking will come later, if at all. (This is, after all, a wonderful essay series for anyone interested in seeing Hall and Oates accidentally absolved of responsibility for their terrible music.) In any event, the reaction that I’ve seen so far has been troubling, and more or less what I should have expected for a country whose politics are so profoundly fucked up.

If for no other reason, Colson is worth remembering for his commitment to prison reform. By remembering, I mean really keeping his memory alive for decades to come. Prison reform is a vitally important issue in the US, but it has been ignored because much of the public has been narcotized; a bit more about the favorite “Christian” forms of this narcosis will come below. We now have the highest per capita incarceration rate on Earth, with many of our prisoners held in facilities where the staff either cannot or will not protect their basic physical safety. In some jails and prisons, notably in California, the guards take the lead in assaulting inmates. And yet it often seems possible to count on one hand the number of prominent politicians who clearly give a damn about our prisons.

Chuck Colson did. He probably wouldn’t have cared had he not been incarcerated himself, but that point is immaterial. He made it clear that his incarceration opened his eyes to a troubling Leviathan and that he felt called to work to reform it. He isn’t the only person to have had such an experience in prison. Dan Rostenkowski, for one, had a similar change of heart. Many news organizations and commentators studiously ignore such people, and others mock them for shedding crocodile tears. A nation that doesn’t want to be sadistic listens to them closely. America’s refusal to listen is damning.

The lefty blogosphere lit up overnight with foolish old libels that Colson’s jailhouse conversion was an act, a publicity stunt designed to garner sympathy and further his ambitions after his release. These claims demonstrate a crippling, near total unfamiliarity with the nuances of Christian conservative politics. Having spent so much time around petulant leftists in my family and read much of the garbage put out by left-wing rabble-rousers, this ignorance was exactly what I should have expected, but I was still appalled. The anger didn’t help, either. Scott Lemieux suggested that Colson “burn in hell.” His words, not mine. It’s one thing to criticize rabid Calvinists for praying for justice rather than mercy; that’s to be expected, and Catholics would scream ourselves hoarse if we really confronted Five-Pointers over the matter; but Scott Lemieux isn’t Mark Driscoll. When widely read left-wing bloggers start using language like that, it’s an indication that they’ve plunged into the fever swamp. Actually, Lawyers, Guns and Money has been wallowing in the fever swamp for years, although the “burn in hell” comment was a lot worse than usual.

The thing about Colson that his lefty critics don’t get is that Prison Fellowship and his activism on behalf of prison reform were just about the least crass, least mercenary and most decent things he could have done as a prominent Christian conservative. Much of what his contemporaries have been doing since the 1980s has been truly despicable. Colson had the connections to do the same and get rich in the process, but he took the high road. That is not the mark of a mercenary shyster. It’s the mark of a man of goodwill.

The left has its panties in a bunch because Colson had conservative attitudes about marriage and gender roles and because he allied himself with more odious religious right figures. To quote the Apostle Paul, these critics should put aside childish things. To use a parlance that they’ll more readily understand, they should grow the fuck up. Colson’s presence on the televangelism circuit elevated what was (and still is) otherwise a low and vicious discourse about prison policy. If the art of compromise led him to support or imply assent to dubious propositions unrelated to his prison ministry and reform work, that’s unfortunate but understandable. Those who find it unpardonable should give some more thought to the meaning of “compromise” and should reconsider whether they know shit from Shinola about the workings of representative democracy.

The options for leftists who support prison reform are particularly stark. One of the few recent governors willing to defend a vigorous use of the pardon, clemency and commutation process has been Mike Huckabee. Some of the most serious and credible prison reform proposals made in the US Senate in recent years have come from Jim Webb, who took flak for resisting expansions of assignment options for women in the military, and from Sam Brownback, a Catholic Republican who, in Emma Sullivan’s estimation, blows a lot. The question for leftists who have any principles, especially civil libertarians, is this: are you willing to work with these people, or do you just want to throw a tantrum?

Hey girlfriend, are you ready to put your big girl panties on?

Looking around at my country, I’m afraid that the answer is “no.”

The praise that Colson has gotten from the Christian right has often focused exclusively on his evangelistic activities and his personal faith, ignoring his very civic-minded efforts towards broad prison reform. Plenty of ostentatiously self-described “Christians” love the idea of getting prisoners right with Jesus but shy away from any effort to fix the structural problems in the legal system that put so many people behind bars in the first place. They love the idea of freeing people from metaphorical prisons in their own minds, but they’re uncomfortable with efforts to minimize the number of real prisoners imprisoned in real, physical prisons. As a satirical federal prison warden in John Stewart’s “America” put it, “Free your mind, because your ass ain’t going anywhere.”

I first heard of Colson’s death from a DJ on Air One, a feel-good Christian pop radio station out of Redding, CA. The DJ effused that “Chuck Colson’s book really helped me in my walk.” A more cynical way of putting this is that he found Colson to be an inspirational self-help writer. Self-help is exactly what most televangelists on the air today offer; that, and wire fraud. Self-help is useful for people caught in bad circumstances that they have no capacity to change, such as prisoners, cripples, amputees, and lucid nursing home patients, and as it applies to prisoners Colson clearly recognized this. He also recognized that civic engagement was crucial if there was to be any hope of implementing reforms to improve prison conditions and reduce incarceration rates. Unlike a great many of his contemporaries, he did not view Christianity as a do-it-yourself enterprise, a way for the individual or the family to transcend its present circumstances with no regard for its neighbors. He saw the need for public and collective action to free literal captives from literal bondage. His Christianity was neither the sanitized, depoliticized version peddled by “Prosperity Gospel” frauds nor the cruel, hyperpartisan version peddled by latter-day Elmer Gantries.

Chuck Colson’s Christianity is sadly rare in the United States, both in politics and in religion. May Pat Robertson live long to carry that torch, because I don’t foresee Joyce Meyer or Joel Osteen lifting a manicured finger on behalf of their imprisoned compatriots.

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