So dark was Colson’s reputation that much of Washington laughed skeptically when he announced that he had embraced Christianity.
“Someone in the newsroom wrote a fake headline saying ‘Christ Rejects Colson.’ Here was the toughest of the tough,” said Bob Woodward, an assistant managing editor for The Post who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Watergate scandal with partner Carl Bernstein.
But the drama of Colson’s plunge was key to his rise as a Christian leader.
After his incarceration, Colson could have easily made millions in business or as a celebrity evangelist. Instead he founded Prison Fellowship, a multimillion-dollar ministry that advocates for prisoners and preaches behind bars in 1,400 U.S. jails and in 110 other countries. His prison work was his redemption, transforming him into one of the country’s most admired evangelical leaders.
Colson, who lives in Florida full time after years of dividing his time between the Sunshine State and Northern Virginia, hasn’t lost his taste for politics. He works against measures to legalize gay marriage and served as an informal adviser to former George W. Bush aide Karl Rove. But he doesn’t usually sound strident when he talks about hot-button social issues and is viewed more as the wise grandfather of the religious right. He is funny before a crowd, quick to hug fans (especially prisoners) and is treated like a rock star at Christian events. People constantly approach him to talk about their ministry projects, push their books or ask for an autograph.
It was his stature that led to the suggestion that Colson find a way to multiply himself — passing on his orthodox Christian beliefs as well as his talent for communicating them.
“The point was to get more people to be like Chuck,” says Chip Mahon, a retired financial services executive who sits on the board of BreakPoint, the umbrella group for Colson’s various ministries, including the Centurions, which began in 2004.
The timing appealed to Colson, who believes Christianity is in crisis in the West, particularly in churches. Religion, he says, has become a vague word for self-exploration and spirituality.
Even the word “religion” has a bad name among Centurion types, who tend not to use it. Some argue that the word “Christian” has become co-opted; they prefer to say they have a “biblical” worldview.
Regardless of how traditional evangelicals describe themselves, they are facing some discouraging trends.