- By Will InbodenWill Inboden is Executive Director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.
The death of Chuck Colson over the weekend marked the loss of an American original. As many news stories attest, Colson embodied a quintessentially American life, from his rise to prominence in the Nixon White House, to his disgrace and imprisonment for Watergate-related crimes, to his conversion to Christianity and rebirth as the head of a worldwide prison reform ministry and leading evangelical social thinker. Colson’s experience was also deeply human, a moving account of grace and redemption that resonated with millions of those across the globe influenced by his work and thought.
Yet most of the obituaries neglect Colson’s notable influence on American foreign policy. Colson emerged in the 1980s as a leading thinker on Christian participation in politics and policy. His 1989 book Kingdoms in Conflict sought to recover the Augustinian tradition and make it accessible to American evangelicals, who continued to be susceptible to erratic swings between pietistic withdrawal from the world and triumphalist political crusades. Instead Colson argued for a thoughtful participation in politics that sought to achieve proximate goods, while respecting pluralism and not conflating the earthly realm with the eternal realm.
Based on this theological foundation, in the 1990s Colson helped lead a broad movement of American evangelicals into activism on an array of foreign-policy issues, including religious persecution, human trafficking, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, genocide in Sudan, and human rights atrocities in North Korea. Colson also equipped evangelical Protestants to engage in co-belligerency on specific issues with people of different faiths but similar goals, including Catholics, Jews, mainline Protestants, Tibetan Buddhists, Bahais, and secular human rights activists.
I inadvertently experienced a sense of Colson’s power to mobilize in 1996 when I worked as a staff member for Sen. Sam Nunn. One day Colson dedicated his daily radio broadcast to a human rights issue in Kuwait and urged his many listeners to phone the State Department switchboard and ask the secretary of state to take action on this case. Unfortunately, Colson erroneously read out to his listeners my direct office line rather than the State Department phone number, and I spent the rest of the day explaining to befuddled callers that I was not Warren Christopher.
Mixed-up phone numbers notwithstanding, Colson and like-minded leaders formed a coalition that achieved some notable policy and legislative successes. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the State Department offices of International Religious Freedom, Trafficking in Persons, Global Aids Coordinator, Special Envoy for Sudan, and North Korea Human Rights would not exist today without Colson’s work in generating support for their creation. In the process, Colson and his cohort helped raise the awareness of American evangelicals about a broader set of global issues beyond their traditional domestic social concerns.
In his political thought and engagement, Colson took as his role model the early 19th-century British parliamentarian, abolitionist, and social reformer William Wilberforce. Wilberforce, as Colson often noted, spent as much time thinking carefully about how he participated in the political process as worrying about the outcomes. In Wilberforce’s case — which Colson attempted to emulate — this meant principled disagreement with his opponents while holding them in charitable regard, and marshaling persuasive evidence and appeals to conscience rather than indulging in deceptions and demagoguery. The challenge now for the next generation of American evangelicals, who first developed their foreign-policy awareness under Colson’s influence, is to deepen their political and theological reflection and engagement on complex global issues that do not lend themselves to simple humanitarian appeals, such as great-power relations, international economics, and war and peace.
For all his decades of post-prison work to make a better world, Colson never lost sight of his faith in the world to come. With his passing he has crossed the proverbial river, and I pray he now knows the peace of eternal rest.