Charles Colson's 'Ecumenism of the Trenches'

Recalling the man who helped forge Evangelicals and Catholics Together and the ‘Manhattan Declaration.’

Charles Colson (1931-2012)
Charles Colson (1931-2012) (photo: Screenshot)

Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”

— Revelation 14:13 


Walter Hooper once said of C.S. Lewis that he was the most truly converted person he had ever met. The same thing can be justly said of Charles W. Colson, who came to faith in Christ through reading Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Since Colson’s death at age 80 on April 21, tributes have poured in from across the world — from world leaders and towering figures of business, politics and academia, but also from prisoners, chaplains and countless others on the margins of society, from the least, the last and the lost.

Colson was a man of the people, and he never lost the common touch. On his frequent visits to prison, inmates crowded around Colson, and he always seemed to have time for everyone. Everyone mattered.

Colson’s 1976 bestselling autobiography, Born Again, tells the story of a man born in Boston on the wrong side of the tracks. He clawed his way up the ever-spiraling ladder of success until he reached the pinnacle of power as special counsel to the president of the United States.

Nixon’s “hatchet man,” Colson was ruthless in his efforts to advance the political aims of his president and his party.

But when his career was shattered in the wake of Watergate, he found himself in the position of another henchman, Thomas à Becket, who had done the bidding of Henry II in the 12th century.

In a play about his life, Becket stands on stage, stripped of the insignia of his high office, and exclaims, “Oh God, there must be something more!” Unlike Becket, Colson never became a saint in any official sense. But there was something saintly in his devotion to Jesus Christ and his Church and in his love for the oppressed and marginalized in our world.

Sentenced to prison for his Watergate crimes, Colson left prison in 1975 only to return again and again with a message of hope and life in Christ. For many years, Colson spent every Easter Sunday behind bars preaching to inmates about the risen Christ.

Prison Fellowship, a transcultural movement for justice and reform, is today chartered in 120 countries around the world.

Over the years, Colson came to see the close connection between despair within the prisons and the “culture of death” in society on the outside. Colson was drawn to the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity, and he knew that genuine reform had to embrace the family and the community as well as the state.

Today, the Colson Center for Christian Worldview is shaping leaders in every walk of life to become citizens of faith and conscience, ambassadors of good will in Jesus’ name.

At heart, Chuck Colson was an evangelist, and this was why he worked so hard to promote unity among believers in Christ. He took seriously the words of Jesus in his prayer to the heavenly Father for his disciples, “May all of them be one, Father … so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).

In the early 1990s, Colson joined with his close friend, Father Richard John Neuhaus, to begin the project known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). Catholics and evangelicals were, and remain, the two largest faith communities in North America. Increasingly, they found themselves drawn together in what I described at the time as “an ecumenism of the trenches,” especially in defense of the sanctity of life from conception to natural death.

Evangelicals and Catholics shared much in common, but there was little understanding or cooperation, and all too often deep hostility between the two groups. It is hard to imagine now the virulent reaction provoked by the ECT initiatives some two decades ago.

While Father Neuhaus received some critical comments from the Catholic side, reactionary evangelicals exploded with anger, bombast and recrimination.

Colson was excoriated by some of his fellow evangelicals for having betrayed the Gospel. Prison Fellowship lost $1 million in donations from some disaffected supporters. But Colson never wavered from what he believed was a summons from the Holy Spirit.

At the outset of ECT, Colson asked, “Dare we believe that God is calling us to make a bold statement that could influence the course of his church in the decades to come?”
The work of ECT still continues. Our most recent statement, “In Defense of Religious Freedom,” was published in the March 2012 issue of First Things. Bereft now of both of our founders, the ECT project moves forward, building on the initial statement drafted by Colson and Father Neuhaus (who died in 2009): “We thank God for the discovery of one another in contending for a common cause. Much more we thank God for the discovery of one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.”

In the summer of 2009, Chuck Colson, along with Robert George and me, drafted a statement of Christian conscience that has become known as the “Manhattan Declaration.” Building on both biblical faith and the right use of reason, we set forth this new manifesto in defense of the three most pressing moral issues of our time: the sanctity of every human life at every stage of development as uniquely given by God and worthy of respect and protection; the dignity of marriage as a lifelong covenantal union between one man and one woman, the foundation of family life and the nurturing of children for the well-being of society; and religious freedom for all persons everywhere.

These three issues, of course, are not new to the moral discourse of our culture. But they are under renewed assault in our world today.

In the “Manhattan Declaration,” we called on all Christian believers — evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox alike — to join us in this commitment. Thus far, more than 525,000 Christian believers from all of these traditions have signed the “Manhattan Declaration.” The “Manhattan Declaration” was born in the heart of Chuck Colson, and its now famous closing lines came from his pen: “We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.”

Though it may not be the most orthodox eschatology to say so, I cannot help but imagine that somewhere in the suburbs of heaven, Chuck Colson and Father Richard John Neuhaus are plotting another divine conspiracy to twist the nose of Satan and his minions.

Early in his life, Chuck Colson served in the U.S. Marines, and he was buried with full military honors at Quantico. A public memorial service is planned at the National Cathedral.

Perhaps his legacy is best expressed in this statement from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers From Prison: “Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God — the responsible man who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God.”

Timothy George is the founding dean of

 Beeson Divinity School and chairman of the board of

 the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.