Charles W. Colson, self-described "hatchet man" for Richard M. Nixon and a key figure in the Watergate scandal who experienced a dramatic conversion to born-again Christianity, has been awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.
The prize, named after financier John Marks Templeton, is worth more than $1 million this year. It aims to do for religion and spirituality what the Nobel prizes do for science, medicine and literature.
Colson joins a distinguished list of previous prize winners, including Mother Teresa; Brother Roger, founder of the ecumenical Taize Community in France; Alexander Solzhenitsyn; the Rev. Billy Graham; and Professor Charles Birch, a theoretician of the relationship between science and faith.
In choosing Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, the international panel of judges gave recognition to a classic American religious conversion from reprobate to believer, a genre chronicled in personal testimonies dating to the Great Awakening of the mid-18th century.
"When I first learned of this award, I did not feel a sense of exultation," Colson said in a statement. "I was instead driven to my knees, humbled and grateful to the Lord Jesus Christ, whom I serve.
"By God's grace He has chosen to take a person from the shame and disgrace of Watergate and prison and use him to build a prison movement in 54 countries."
Colson established Prison Fellowship, an outreach program designed to bring the Christian message to inmates, with royalties from his 1976 autobiography, "Born Again: What Really Happened to the White House Hatchet Man."
Colson, 61, a native of Boston, gained national notoriety working for the Nixon campaign in 1968 and, after the election, as special counsel to the president.
In the Nixon White House, infamous for its take-no-prisoners, no-holds-barred approach to politics and governing, Colson was among the most ferocious, a king of the "dirty tricks" approach to campaigns.
Among his better-known activities was the 1971 leaking to the media of a secret FBI report meant to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, the anti-war activist affiliated with a think tank who provided the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. The papers contained secret information about U.S. involvement in Vietnam and revealed some of the doubts behind officials' public facade of confidence.
In 1973, as the White House effort to cover up the Watergate scandal unraveled, Colson resigned.
On Aug. 12, 1973, according to Colson, he had a "born again" religious experience after hearing the personal testimony of Tom Phillips, who would go on to become the chairman of Raytheon Corp.
In 1974, Colson was charged in the Watergate and Ellsberg conspiracy cases, but prosecutors were unaware of his role in leaking the secret documents to the media. In an effort to square his newfound Christianity with his past, he confessed to prosecutors that he was the source of the leak. In June 1974 he pleaded guilty to an obstruction-of-justice charge and was sentenced to a 1-to-3-year prison term.
On July 8, Colson began serving his prison term, but seven months later, on Jan. 31, 1975, he was released from prison because of "serious family difficulties."
Since then, Colson has been an active advocate of several controversial prison reform proposals, including alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders; establishment of other ministries, including programs to aid victims of crime; and expansion of the Prison Fellowship program overseas.
The Prison Fellowship movement now includes a staff of 280 members and about 50,000 volunteers in the United States.