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Chuck Colson on Christianity in the age of Obama

Wednesday, February 25, 2009
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HH: As you know, if you’ve listened to this show, I’ve been undertaking a series of conversations with high profile Evangelical leaders, whether that would be John Stonestreet and David Noeble from Summit Ministries, or Al Mohler from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and more about Evangelicalism underneath President Obama. And to do that in anticipation today of what’s going to happen a little bit later, I’m very, very pleased to welcome back to the program Chuck Colson, the founder of Prison Fellowship, one of the great, bold voices for Evangelical Christendom in the United States for the past 35 years. Chuck, welcome, it’s great to talk to you again.

CC: Thank you, Hugh, it’s nice to be with you.

HH: I want to start by making sure, how is Prison Fellowship doing in the recession? There’s a tendency to forget the most vulnerable, the families of the imprisoned at a time when economic things are tough.

CC: Yeah, that’s always the case. We’ve been hit like everybody else has been hit, about 20%, 20% off, and so we’ve had to let some of our key staff go. The problem is you lose people in the field, and it really crimps the ministry, because we’re doing stuff all over the country like the prisons that we run, and now the prison units we run in various prisons where we’ve cut the recidivism rate from 60% nationally to 8%, a peer reviewed study by the University of Pennsylvania. So this is stuff that has huge public implications. It also is maybe the best way I can think of today to make the Invisible Kingdom visible. You create these units in the prisons where the incorrigible come to Christ, and they become leaders in the Church. And they come out and they start working back in the prisons. This is a tremendous way for people to see visibly the reality of God.

HH: Over the years, we’re going to talk politics in a moment, Chuck Colson, but over the years that you’ve been involved with the incarcerated, has the hardness of the hearts gotten worse, stayed the same, or gotten better?

CC: Well, it’s gotten worse in one sense, and that is that the younger inmates have become much more dangerous. It used to be when I went in the prisons, the big worry that wardens had was protecting the kids coming into prisons from the older convicts. Now, we’ve had people say I’ve got to find a way to protect these older convicts from the kids. The kids coming in are more dangerous, more violent, less moral training, less conscience formed, broken families. It is much more a reflection of the social breakdown of American life than it is crime. Actually, crime goes down in recessions. That’s an interesting observation, but historically validated. Every time there’s been a recession, the 30s being the last depression, the 30s being the last big one, crime dropped precipitously. And it’ll drop now, because people are working harder to help each other, there’s a different spirit of community. The prisons are nothing but a reflection of our worst-based instincts of the culture. That’s all they are. And we’ve got to deal with them, because they’re dangerous.

HH: And has the professional community of prison management embraced the lessons that you have learned through Prison Fellowship all these years, Chuck Colson?

CC: Yeah, that’s a great question, Hugh. People do not often ask me that. It has been a profound change. They used to worry about us, they used to think we were a nuisance to them. Now they greet us with open arms because they’re seeing the results of our work, and it results in safer prisons for their staff to work in, it results in good people inside trying to do something constructive with their lives. No, we have trouble right now keeping up with all the requests for our work.

HH: You know, we’re going to transition to politics now, but I say to anyone out there, if you’ve got a church and you think it needs to do something that has impact, partner up with Prison Fellowship. And I’m sure you do that, Chuck. You’ll find local churches and work with them.

CC: Oh, we have about 15,000 that work with us on Angel Tree every year when we buy gifts for the prisoners’ children. So we have…and we have a close relationship in many areas, Southern California particularly so with many, many churches working on prisoner re-entry. This is a big thing, so anybody who’s listening to us, be sure to get to us on our website, www.pfm.org or one way or another, find us. We have local offices around the country, because we would love to have more volunteers, absolutely.

HH: Yeah, and if you feel that tugging on your heart, just go to www.pfm.org and go for it. Now Chuck, let’s turn to politics. I wonder what your sense of the country is, and for people who don’t know you, you know, politics like few people did. You rose with Richard Nixon, both of us had as a boss, you fell with him, you rebuilt your life around Christ, and you had enormous influence, but you’ve never not followed the culture deeply. What’s your sense of where we are as a country right now?

CC: Well, politics is nothing but a reflection of culture. And the culture’s in trouble, so our politics are in trouble. I’ve never seen so much mismanagement, mishandling of money, I’ve never seen so much corruption. It’s widespread. It’s almost become normal. You know, when corruption becomes normal, you’re really in trouble. I think that’s happened in our political system, and I think money has bought out the system. The Republicans, when they ran the Congress for 12 years, didn’t do any better than the Democrats, so this isn’t a partisan reflection at all. It is simply a reflection of the times that we live in. Politics is downstream from culture. When culture deteriorates, and by the way, culture is nothing but religion incarnate, so if we’ve got a problem in our society, we’ve got to look at ourselves as Christians first. Fix the kingdom we are part of, and it’ll reflect on the kingdom we live in, in this life. But when you look at it, you realize, Hugh, that we’re getting the politics we deserve today. Now the big problem, and that generally happens in a democracy, the big problem is that we are gripped in fear right now. And the President, I find it very difficult to understand why, seems to be feeding the fear rather than building confidence as great leaders do, which Roosevelt did, which Churchill did, which Reagan did, Thatcher did. I don’t understand the strategy of this at all, but it’s a little terrifying, because if a country really get gripped in fear, people are really panicked for their jobs and their survival, they’ll surrender any of their liberties. That frightens me more than anything.

HH: Do you expect Democrats want that? You know, I’ve known, as you have for years, in fact, one of the men who led you to Christ was a Democratic senator I recall from your wonderful book.

CC: Yup.

HH: And so Democrats don’t want that, do they?

CC: I don’t think so. I don’t think most people do. I don’t…as I say, I can’t quite understand the psychology that this administration’s operating under. It doesn’t make any sense to me. What you really want to do is build confidence. You want people to have faith. Fear is the enemy of faith. And if you allow a culture of fear to develop, I don’t think anybody can lead unless they lead by inspiring confidence in their followers. And I’m just surprised, I can only say I’m surprised. I don’t quite understand it. But it’s terribly important that those of us who have public platforms, you, Hugh, with a very influential platform that you have, we need to be explaining to people that, at least to Christians, that despair is a sin. You don’t give up, and you don’t throw in the towel. You don’t say that everything is falling through the roof. You’ve got to start thinking constructively about how we’re going to rebuild the society. And our view, our outlook should be shaped by Philippians 4:8. It’s have those thoughts in our mind which are noble and pure and good, virtuous. That’s critically important right now in America.

HH: Where is the Church today in America? I began this series of conversations, Chuck Colson, when I read a statistic that 28% of self-identified young Evangelicals had voted for Barack Obama. And I was really moved to it when my nephew, who has marched in the pro-life march in Washington, D.C., voted for Obama. And I began to think, what in the world happened to the Church’s ability to educate. And I’m not saying Barack Obama isn’t a Christian, I’m not saying that. But his politics are radically pro-abortion, and radically discordant with sort of traditional theology. What happened?

CC: Well, I can understand a lot of Christians making prudential judgments about the merits of the two candidates, and coming down on it differently than I do. I mean, I cut people a lot of slack on that subject. I can’t cut them much slack, however, on the question of life, because it is the very basis of our entire system of governance, is predicated on the fact that we are preserving the dignity of human life. As a Christian, believing that we are made in the image of God Himself, the Imago Dei is in us, and that Christ became flesh. You have to see the centrality of life through the entire message of the Bible. In fact, I’m in a group called Evangelicals and Catholics Together, in which we wrote a statement That They May Have Life a few years ago, in which we said anyone who is pro-choice and claims to be Christian has got to recheck whether he’s acting in obedience to God and belongs in the company of Christian discipleship. I wrote this in my book, The Faith, which is now out, a book about all the things Christians believe. I’m very strong on this, so it’d be tough for me. I don’t think I could pull the level, Republican or Democrat, for somebody who wasn’t…who was pro-choice, who was radically pro-choice.

HH: And so…and I agree with that. So how come that message, which seems to me to be very basic, did not permeate the Evangelical voting cohort?

CC: Well, a lot of Evangelicals divorce the life issue, or make it one of many issues, putting it out on a moral equivalency with environmentalism and social justice and these other issues. It isn’t…all these issues aren’t alike. There is one issue that is transcendent, and that is the question of life, because all of human dignity rests on that. And if you…it is integral to the Gospel. It’s not about the Catholic tradition is stronger than ours. The Catholic tradition, the Pope, John Paul II, wrote Evangelium Vitae, in which he said that the dignity and respect of life is part of the Gospel. It’s part of the Gospel message.

HH: I’ll be right back with Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship.

– – – –

HH: And I note, Chuck Colson, this segues into my subject for these eight minutes, what should the Church do? It seems to me that you have focused in the book, The Faith, and in your DVD and the small group discussion guide that the Church needs to get back to its basics.

CC: Oh, absolutely, Hugh. Most Christians don’t understand what they believe or why they believe it. And they’re not able to defend it or present it winsomely. The world stereotypes us, caricatures us as backwards, fundamentalist Bible-pounders, no conscience. And that’s simply because…and we let that stereotype exist because we don’t argue with it. We don’t contend with it. We don’t show people what we really believe. If we really understood what we believed, the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith, and we lived them, it would be irresistible. People would be flooding our doors. It’s because we sit in our churches quietly, and we listen, and we have our ears tickled, and we replaced truth with therapy. And so we don’t have anything to offer the world. I think the problem in our culture today starts with the Church, and I think the solution starts with the Church. When I say the Church, I’m talking the universal Church, all true believers. If we would start really understanding what we believe, and the other thing, Hugh, this is a failure of the Church widespread, we misread the Great Commission. Everybody wants to send out witnessing teams and say they’ll fulfill the Great Commission. And you’ve got to witness people. I’m not saying you don’t. But that’s not the end of the story. Jesus didn’t say go and make converts. He said go and make disciples and baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teach them all I have taught to you. We’ve got to be in the business of making disciples so that we can more ably defend the Truth. What we do in the Kingdom of God is eventually going to effect the kind of kingdom we live in on this Earth. So politics to me is secondary. I’m very much involved in political issues, I’m sensitive to politics, I follow it because it’s so much a part of our culture. But fundamentally, the problem is with us. It starts with us.

HH: Chuck Colson, my friend, I suspect he’s one of yours as well, Charles Chaput is the Archbishop of Denver, wrote a book last year called Render Unto Caesar, which was sort of a very directed appeal at Catholics, though it obviously had great impact on Protestants as well, it seems to me that the faith is the other side of that coin, your project here to sort of wake up the Church to the immediacy of these issues. Does it mean sort of going to pre-Moral Majority and retooling and doing this a different way?

CC: Oh, yeah. Archbishop Chaput, by the way, gave a glowing endorsement of my book, The Faith, he loves it.

HH: I’m not surprised, yeah.

CC: As do many other…Robbie George and other Catholic leaders, but what the book calls for is a new Reformation. Remember when Luther started the Reformation, when the Church was so corrupted, which it was, Luther started the Reformation with one goal in mind – take the Church back to the fundamental teaching of the Church fathers. Go back not just pre-Moral Majority, go back to the early days when the Canonical Councils were meeting, and when the Scripture was being settled, and when the great theological debates were being engaged in. First of all, there was great unity in the Church, second there wasn’t any question about how people were saved or justified, thirdly, there was total agreement on the fundamental truths of the Nicene Creed so that we understood what Christians believed. And the Church was exploding. And Hugh, wherever you go in the world today and find the Orthodox message being preached, the faith given once for all, and trusted once for all to the saints as Jude said it, and that’s where I got the title for my book, when you go back to the Church fathers, and you teach this, the Church is exploding. People want the real thing. They don’t want this consumer-driven, watered-down Christianity. And the problem of those young Evangelicals you’re talking about and their not understanding this, they haven’t been taught it. My pastor happens to speak from the pulpit on this subject, and I really appreciate him, and he’s made life a transcendent issue that it deserves to be in the Christian view, and always has been in the view of Orthodox believing Christians. So you don’t get a lot of people who are making silly judgments in politics because they fall for some other issue that they think is more…the environment today is taking a lot of young Christians away and moving them into a liberal camp. But the environment is a secondary. I’m not even sure there is the kind of global warming people think or that it’s human induced. But even if it were, people are more important, because they’re created in God’s image and given the assignment of caring for the Creation.

HH: Chuck Colson, if you…obviously right now, from coast to coast, and from Alaska to Florida and out to Hawaii, we’ve got a lot of people listening who are not only pastors, but they’re leaders in their churches, whatever denomination. Speak directly to them as to what they ought to do to revitalize and energize and make effective the Church in America.

CC: I learned some lessons when I was a Marine officer. The first one is understand the environment that you’re taking your troops into. You’ve got to understand what’s going on in the world. You’ve got to read the signs of the times. You’ve got to understand the alien worldviews that are gripping us. Secondly, you’ve got to serve your troops. Colin Powell was once asked what’s the most important test for a military leader. It’s is he serving his troops? And that doesn’t mean, by the way, that you’re waiting on tables or getting him food. What that means is that you’re equipping them to do their job. And so that’s the second lesson for us. The third lesson, which is critically important, is to have a message which explains what we believe in a winsome way. And the fourth is, lead the way. Too many pastors are sitting back, and I’ve said this many times, and people sometimes, it ruffles the feathers, but too many people are sitting back, giving people what they want in church instead of what they need. Leadership, Jesus says, follow Me. And that’s what the Marine lieutenant says, and that’s what the pastor has to say. Follow me, I’m going to tell you what the truth is, and then you’re going to live it out.

HH: Now Chuck Colson, the generation that was so influential over the last forty years, you’re a part of it, Jim Dobson’s a part of it, obviously some have gone to their rewards already. But who’s the next generation? Who’s going to lead the sort of Evangelical, political, intellectual effort here? I mean, John Neuhaus has gone to be with the Lord. Who steps up?

CC: Well, there is a vacuum right now, and I’m seeing some younger leaders who are really getting it. I’ve been working with a number of them. I run this program called the Centurions, where we teach people Biblical worldview in a year-long course. A lot of young men have taken it, and women. And they’re getting it. So I think it’s going to surprise you, Hugh. I think with the internet revolution, with the fact that information is just spreading so easily flowing around the globe, you’re going to find a lot more grassroots leaders springing up, and maybe less of the people who dominate the airwaves or write all the books. Maybe you’re going to find a whole new generation of leaders. I think we’re seeing them. I’m seeing a lot of it in young men and women who really get it, really get the Orthodox faith, aren’t taken in by these seductive arguments that are being posed by the left. And I think there’s going to be a fresh, new generation taking over.

HH: 45 seconds, Chuck Colson, are you an optimist about the country?

CC: I’m always an optimist because I know God has written the last chapter of history, and that I think He’s put America on Earth to do a noble purpose, to house the saints who are spreading around the world sharing the resources of abundance that we have here. I think, also, Western civilization has provided the greatest humane, most generous way of life for all people, and so we’ve got to fight to protect that.

HH: Chuck Colson, always a great pleasure, thanks for spending a half hour with us. The new series is The Faith. I didn’t even know about it until we started connecting here, and I’m going to go get it. And www.pfm.org, Chuck Colson, always a pleasure.

End of interview.

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