Sam Harris, one of this country’s leading secularists, has a new book describing free will as a myth. Here and in lectures and articles, Mr. Harris rejects the idea that we can change our character or the course of our lives, including lifestyle choices and so on. We are, Harris posits, hopelessly guided by forces other than volition, unaware and powerless to change much about ourselves. We are ruled by our biology, culture and experiences, among other forces beyond conscious control.
Taking this reasoning into account, I shouldn’t be too hard on Chuck Colson, or anyone else of whose deeds I am appalled. Given similar circumstances, I’d no doubt be more or less like them, except of course for the influence of random variables that also shape every life. We are all, in fact, shaped by contingencies (AKA blind fate/luck/chance, etc. as you wish) and the other above-noted factors.
In any event, Colson is gone (i.e., dead) and I’m resolved to be nice, more or less. Unfortunately, his work continues so a few less-than-super nice comments can’t be helped. (Besides, I’m also a product of all those forces acting upon me – I’m going with the flow here.)
Perhaps you are too youthful or for other reasons not aware of the first career for which Mr. Colson is infamous. (I use this term in its generally accepted sense. Personally, I think Colson’s true fame was as a political operator; his vile infamy for which he is heralded was his work as an evangelist for superstition amongst undereducated captive populations.)
There were two Charles Colsons known to the world. The first was the Republican hit man; the second the religious proselytizer. I never liked either one but I will always be fond of the first compared with the ghastly business done by the second.
Best known for his honestly in saying, I would walk over my own grandmother to ensure the reelection of President Richard M. Nixon, Colson was a dirty tricks artist and highly effective political strategist. He got credit, said to be well deserved, for laying the groundwork of Nixon’s 1972 landslide win over Democrat George McGovern.
I loved the Washington Post column by humorist Art Buchwald in which he imagined a prayer session between Mr. Colson and the grandmother:
Colson – Shall we kneel together?
Granny: Not me. I haven’t been able to kneel since you screamed at me, ‘Four more years’ and then put your Oldsmobile into drive.
My favorite assessment of Colson was expressed years ago by Americans for Separation of Church and State’s Barry Lynn. Americans United brought lawsuits against Colson’s Prison Fellowship – and won. It turns out that the Fellowship engaged in more dirty tricks than Nixn’s reelection committees. Colluding with Right Wing evangelical political leaders and officials, Colson’s new ministry pressured prisoners to convert to Christianity, in good part by arranging better conditions for those willing to come to Jesus, Lynn said: Colson never changed his methods, just his boss. Sadly, when he went from being Richard Nixon’s hatchet man, he turned into a man who thought he was God’s hatchet man. He literally turned his very formidable political skills once in the service of very far-right religious and political agendas.
Of all the Colsonian expressions that this character contributed to the world, my favorite would have to be this one: When you’ve got ’em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow. This worked for Colson in both careers, with slight variation. In the second, as recruiter for an imaginary friend, he added souls to hearts and minds. This seems appropriate, given that no evidence exists for souls, either.