I used to be Nixon's jester; now I'm on God's side: Chuck Colson, Watergate veteran, lands a pounds 650,000 religious prize. How come? Reggie Nadelson finds out

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TOMORROW at Buckingham Palace the 1993 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, worth pounds 650,000, will be presented by the Duke of Edinburgh. Previous recipients of the prize, established in 1972 by the financier Sir John Templeton, include Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits.

This year's winner is none other than Charles Colson. Remember him? As Richard Nixon's special counsel, Colson played a key role in the events that led to the Watergate scandal. On 15 October 1971 a legendary Wall Street Journal headline read: 'Nixon hatchet man . . . Chuck Colson handles President's dirty tricks'.

'Colson would do anything. He's got the balls of a brass monkey,' Nixon said. Of Colson, it was said: 'He's so tough he would walk over his own grandmother.' That is not what won him the prize.

It was in the aftermath of Watergate that he saw the light. In June 1974 Colson was sentenced to one to three years in a federal penitentiary for obstruction of justice in the Watergate cover-up. He served seven months in prison and while he was there saw the desperate need for the sort of work that has made him a leading religious


Colson has indeed said he had to go to prison to do God's work. When asked if he thought it odd that a man associated with political corruption should receive an award like the Templeton, he replied: 'St Paul was in prison, too; so was Alexander Solzhenitsyn.'

Colson's Prison Fellowship is a ministry that operates in hundreds of American prisons and dozens of countries, including Britain. It has 50,000 volunteers and is, by all accounts, enormously successful in both its pastoral mission, which is resolutely Christian and evangelical, and its efforts to address the mess that the criminal justice system is in. Colson will give his prize money to the fellowship.

'There are 800,000 people in jail in America. Building prisons is a growth industry,' says Colson, a passionate advocate of alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders. Next week, after a press conference at Claridge's, where he is staying, and before the visit to the palace, Colson will call in at Pentonville.

'I've been in 600 prisons in 30 countries and when I hear the noise, I feel a chill. I've never gotten over being in prison,' he says at the fellowship's headquarters in a leafy corner of suburban Virginia, half an hour down the road from the White House.

By the time he was sentenced, Colson had already been 'reborn': in a friend's driveway in the summer of 1973, he had a spiritual experience which led to his 'accepting Jesus Christ'.

Colson delivers a daily radio commentary on the world from a biblical perspective. But he is no redneck Bible-thumper, no hustling televangelist, not a man looking for political opportunities. Even the most diehard sceptics do not doubt the sincerity of his conversion.

When Colson says man cannot be good without God, nor a society virtuous, he quotes Dostoevsky; when he describes America's drift towards secularism and immorality, he calls on Abe Lincoln; his views on such issues as gun control (he favours it) and the death penalty (which he opposes) are independent, eccentric and anomalous for this profoundly conservative man. His conversation is littered with references to Hannah Arendt, Chesterton and C S Lewis; his hero is William Wilberforce - there is an engraving of Wilberforce on the wall of his office, along with a photograph of Jimmy Carter.

Twenty years ago, when his time was more taken up 'shooting the breeze with the President', his role was that of Nixon's court jester. He recently told the New Yorker: 'We were constantly saying, can we do this, or that? Like catching Teddy Kennedy in bed. It was both of us. We were spontaneous combustion.' Did you like Nixon? 'Yeah,' he says. 'Very much. I still do.' Nixon himself has, of course, been born again, this time as a respectable elder statesman.

Nowadays Colson distances himself from politicians. At the Republican Convention last summer he refused to sit alongside Dan Quayle, whom he claims as 'a great personal friend'.

'I didn't want to be seen on TV,' he says. 'I don't think that's where religious leaders belong. Politicians will use the church as a political tool. When religion allies itself to politics, religion loses.'

He believes there is a war to be waged against 'a wave of cynicism threatening to engulf the country'. 'The cynicism started with Watergate, no question . . . and now here's this nice, clean-cut young fellow from Arkansas promising one thing and doing another.'

He does not feel that the revelations about Watergate were much use. Many of the details were mere gossip, he insists; for example, his own alleged plan to firebomb the Brookings Institution. 'Nixon would say: 'Well, what have you done for your country today, boy?' I'd say: 'I've sent in the army to take over the press', but it was idle chatter.'

Was it fun? 'Yeah, sure, but I wasn't a Christian then. I was in the office next door to the President of the United States.'