Perhaps Colson Isn’t the Best Example

Appearing in Wednesday’s edition of the Washington Post was an op-ed by Joseph Loconte and Michael Cromartie, both affiliated with the right-wing Ethics and Public Policy Center, entitled “Let’s Stop Stereotyping Evangelicals.”

The gist of the piece was that the culture’s conception of evangelicals “is a gross caricature” because it ignores “evangelicalism’s deepening social conscience.” 

There can be no doubt that certain segments of the evangelical community have long been committed to social and justice issues beyond the Right’s standard anti-abortion and anti-gay agenda. In fact, as we noted in a post the other day, the National Association of Evangelicals is attempting to broaden its agenda to include everything from global warming to the crisis in Darfur, Sudan. Of course, such efforts have not been welcomed by some right-wing pundits and Religious Right leaders, some of whom are attempting to discredit this effort by tying it directly to the NAE’s disgraced former president, Ted Haggard. 

Loconte and Cromartie insist

Even the Moral Majority in its most belligerent form amounted to nothing more terrifying than churchgoers flocking peacefully to the polls on Election Day. The only people who want a biblical theocracy in America are completely outside the evangelical mainstream, their influence negligible.

So as Jerry Falwell and other ministers were jumping into politics, leaders such as Charles Colson — former Nixon aide turned born-again Christian — were charting another path. In 1976 Colson launched Prison Fellowship, a ministry to inmates, to address the soaring crime problem. Today it ranks as the largest prison ministry in the world, active in most U.S. prisons and in 112 countries. “Crime and violence frustrate every political answer,” he has said, “because there can be no solution apart from character and creed.” No organization has done more to bring redemption and hope to inmates and their families.

Colson’s organization has indeed been very effective reaching out to inmates.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t always been doing so in a manner that is constitutional

In a 140-page decision, U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt ruled that the [Prison Fellowship’s] InnerChange Freedom Initiative program at Iowa’s Newton Correctional Facility violated the constitutional ban on government establishment of religion because it was state-funded, pervasively sectarian and aimed at religious conversion.

“The overtly religious atmosphere of the InnerChange program is not simply an overlay or secondary effect of the program — it is the program,” he wrote.

Based on testimony at a two-week trial last fall, Pratt concluded that inmates who voluntarily entered the program received significant benefits, including better living conditions, and that the prison did not offer any alternative secular or non-Christian program.

“Though an inmate could, theoretically, graduate from InnerChange without converting to Christianity, the coercive nature of the program demands obedience to its dogmas and doctrine,” the decision said.

In suggesting Colson as a model do-gooder, Loconte and Cromartie ignore the fact that his political work extends far beyond the issue of prison fellowship and that he has been an extreme opponent of marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples, which he says threatens “the sanctity of heterosexual marriage” to such an extent that it’ll lead to broken families and ultimately “prisons [full of] kids who have been raised like feral children in the wilderness … Do we want to risk further damage to the integrity of the family?”  

In 2004, Colson appeared at a “Mayday for Marriage” rally where he issued a dire warning that “If we allow the family to be destroyed in our generation, it’ll be on our hands – the blood of the victims of crime – and we won’t be able to build prisons fast enough in America to contain all the kids swept up off the streets because they didn’t have a family that taught them right and wrong.”

Colson has even gone so far as to argue that marriage equality contributes to terrorism

Radical Islamists were surely watching in July when the Senate voted on procedural grounds to do away with the Federal Marriage Amendment. This is like handing moral weapons of mass destruction to those who use America’s decadence to recruit more snipers and hijackers and suicide bombers…. when radical Islamists see American women abusing Muslim men, as they did in the Abu Ghraib prison, and when they see news coverage of same-sex couples being ‘married’ in U.S. towns, we make our kind of freedom abhorrent–the kind they see as a blot on Allah’s creation. Preserving traditional marriage in order to protect children is a crucially important goal by itself. But it’s also about protecting the United States from those who would use our depravity to destroy us.

So when you’re trying to make the case that it’s unfair to judge “the democratic contribution of evangelicals” by the “loopy and triumphalist claims” of a few fringe leaders, maybe Colson isn’t your best example.