Evangelical Christianity lost one of its most beloved and bigoted homophobic and misogynistic voices with the death of Charles W. “Chuck” Colson, a Watergate felon who converted to “evangelicalism” but never lost his taste for dirty political tricks against opponents.
Colson was a vocal far right leader who tried to fill my late father’s religious right leadership (Francis Schaeffer) shoes by borrowing material from his books, even repeating one of Dad’s book titles as if he (Colson) was writing a sequel.
Colson had his “books” ghost written by Harold Fickett and other writers, some of whom like Fickett (who I worked with closely many years ago) used to complain to me almost daily about what an egomaniac Colson was to work for and how he did all he could to hide the fact that his work was written by others while rarely sharing credit.
Colson teamed up with far right Roman Catholic activist Professor Robert George of Princeton to launch the dirty tricks campaign to brand President Obama as “anti-religious” with Colson’s and George’s “Manhattan Declaration.” This was a trap they set for the administration that finally paid off when they talked a number of bishops into branding Obama as anti-religious because he wanted women to have access to contraception even if they worked for Roman Catholic controlled institutions.
Colson worked closely with various right wing Roman Catholic bishops to launch the current Republican Party war on women and gays in the name of “religious freedom” having become one of the chief practitioners of the evangelical/far right myths of victimhood at the hands of left wing media, colleges etc., etc. Colson was also a key figure in organizing the Prop 8 anti-gay marriage California iniatives. Colson was a key figure in calling the depriving of women of insurance coverage for contraception a religious “civil liberties” issue and provided evangelical cover for the Roman Catholic bishops’ misogynist bigotry.
In 1974 Colson entered a plea of guilty to Watergate-related charges. He entered Maxwell Federal Prison Camp in Alabama in 1974 as a new Christian who had just “discovered Jesus” just in time to turn his new found faith into a second act as an evangelical guru. He made his reputation by being one of the meanest political operatives in American history on record for fabricating lies for his master Richard Nixon-- behavior he reverted to when helping the Roman Catholic far right bishops launch their anti-gay and anti-women attacks.
Colson emerged from prison with a new mission to use his newfound evangelical “born-again” platform to help prisoners. For a time he seemed to have actually changed course and worked for prison reform and prisoner care. Then (very much like his good friend Franklyn Graham) he reverted to type and began to fight in the far right holy war against the Democratic Party, women, gays and progressive causes.
Colson re-launched his Nixon-style bid for far right leadership in the political arena with conservative Roman Catholics in two documents called Evangelicals and Catholics Together. The evangelical-Catholic declaration of unity against gays, women and the “pro-abortion” Democratic Party was a direct rip off of my father books “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?” and “How Should We them Live?” Colson somewhat too cutely called his ghost written imitation, “How Now Shall We Live?” (Unlike Colson my father wrote his own books and was not a homophobe or anti woman. Dad was pro-gay and pro-women and thought Roman Catholics were just plain nuts re contraception.)
In 2009, Colson was a principal writer with Robert George of the Manhattan Declaration, which called on far right evangelicals, Mormons and Catholics to defeat President Obama in 2012, albeit without mentioning Obama by name under the “non-political” guise of the “sanctity of human life,” issues and “traditional marriage” and “religious freedom.” These calls for a “return to biblical law” (or the Catholic version so-called “Natural Law”) have long since been the bishops’ and evangelical right’s code words for gay and women bashing.
More than half a million Fox News watchers signed the Manhattan Declaration after it was first signed by a virtual Who’s Who of evangelical leaders in the anti-gay, anti-women crusade. Collaborating with other Christian leaders, Colson aimed to launch other grassroots movements around “moral and ethical issues of great concern” in other words he returned to being Nixon’s hatchet man again at the end of his life showing greater loyalty to far right Republican Politics than to the gospel.
Colson worked closely with members of a far right "religious liberty" group -- the Becket Fund -- led by the ultra conservative Roman Catholic William P. Mumma (a Wall Street banker) working closely with the Roman Catholic bishops to sue the government in order to force women to forgo contraception if they happen to work for Catholic run corporations.
The view they were defending was summed up by the leading Catholic philosopher of the 20th century and Vatican favorite, Elizabeth Anscombe in her anti-contraception essay "Contraception and Chastity," where she wrote: "If you are defending contraception, you will have rejected Christian tradition. It's this that makes the division between straightforward fornication or adultery and the wickedness of the sins against nature and of contraceptive intercourse. Hence contraceptive intercourse within marriage is a graver offence against chastity than is straightforward fornication or adultery." (G. E. M. Anscombe, "Contraception and Chastity," London: Catholic Truth Society, 1975
Most Roman Catholics would not sign on to such weird extremism. But "most Roman Catholics" are not in charge of their church today.
And most Americans will not thank the Roman Catholic activists suing our government to force us to adopt Anscombe's view of contraception even in the name of "religious liberty." Liberty as defined here as the "right" of the Roman Catholic Church to deny progress in women's rights. The suit will mean that any time the social issues might have faded away the Roman Catholic church's attack on women will remain "news."
The far right ideologues who want to turn depriving women of contraceptives into a "religious liberty" issue are counting on trying to get their "case" before at least 4 Supreme Court Justices that have a right wing Catholic worldview --Roberts, Alito, Scalia and Thomas. This fact alone will make millions of women vote for reelecting the President just to make sure he has the chance to appoint another one or two moderate pro-women justices.
Bluntly put, between the Becket Fund/Wall Street suit, the Pope weighing in and the American bishops anti-Obama activity ramping up with Colson to try and defeat Obama in 2012, the Roman Catholic leaders seemed anxious to declare holy war on the Democratic Party. And Colson was their willing Protestant facilitator, helping to craft the mirror image of the racist policy Nixon used to turn Southern Democrats into Republican voters, only this time the tactic was to use “family values” to get white members of the underclass to vote for corporate America.
Colson’s and George's trap for the president, the "Manhattan Declaration," was instantly signed by more than 250 American "mainstream" (mostly Evangelical) conservative religious leaders. They joined to "affirm support for traditional marriage" and to advocate civil disobedience against laws contradicting the signers' religious beliefs about marriage and/or the "life issues." The drafting committee included Evangelical far right leader Charles Colson. In fact, in close contact with operatives like Karl Rove, this whole group began to pump their followers up for the battle to come for the 2012 elections.
It is not coincidence that Colson was assigned by these extremists to be the point man for the anti-Obama crusade. He put his name on a piece crafted by the Robert George group when it came to the bogus "Obama is anti-religious" charge.
To ramp the case up Colson teamed up with a Catholic bishop and wrote (or had George write for them) in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal after the "story" (a trumped up fabricated story at that) about Obama's "anti-religious" stance broke. Then throwing red meat to the faithful, Chuck Colson wrote in an open letter to his fellow believers on Wednesday (Feb. 8) where he compared the administration birth control mandates to policies enacted in Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler.
In the WSJ op-ed Colson and the Catholic bishop blew their cover, they cited their own creation as proof that they had grassroots support when of course (like the Tea Party) they had had their "issue" created top down. they write:
At this critical moment, Americans of every faith, as guardians of their own freedom, must, in the words of the First Amendment, "petition the government for the redress of grievances." That's why over the past two years more than 500,000 people have signed the "Manhattan Declaration" in defense of religious liberty. They believe, as do we, that under no circumstances should people of faith violate their consciences and discard their most cherished religious beliefs in order to comply with a gravely unjust law.
It was a neat trick in the mold of the Nixon “method” Write a declaration, get 250 leaders to sign it then use Fox News etc to promote it "grass roots" then come back and use the fact that it's been signed off on by the pro-life movement as "proof" that the president is out of step with religious freedom! It was the sort of dirty trick Colson was master of. As the New York Times noted:
“Few played political hardball more fiercely than Mr. Colson. When a deluded janitor from Milwaukee shot Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama on the presidential campaign trail in Maryland in May 1972, Nixon asked about the suspect’s politics. Mr. Colson replied, “Well, he’s going to be a left-winger by the time we get through.” He proposed a political frame-up: planting leftist pamphlets in the would-be killer’s apartment. “Good,” the president said, as recorded on a White House tape. “Keep at that.”
Mr. Colson hired E. Howard Hunt, a veteran covert operator for the Central Intelligence Agency, to spy on the president’s opponents. Their plots became part of the cascade of high crimes and misdemeanors known as the Watergate affair.”
There are a number of leading American extremist "conservative" Roman Catholics, like Professor George, who are part of a strange, informal, anti-contraceptive, anti-abortion alliance that Santorum has drawn his ideas from. One such far right Roman Catholic ideologue wrote a book calling on Christians to join Muslims in a jihad against the secular West.
In Ecumenical Jihad: Ecumenism and the Culture War (Ignatius Press, 1996) my old friend Peter Kreeft called for "ecumenical Jihad." Kreeft's was not a plea for blowing people up. He was calling for winning elections and, failing that, for undermining the election results when they are judged "wrong" by religious people.
Kreeft called for an alliance of fundamentalist Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Muslims, to prosecute a culture war against what he called the "demoniacal Western cultural elite." The book was (tellingly) dedicated to several key far right leaders: e.g., Chuck Colson, Michael Medved and (of course) the reactionary's reactionary, Richard John Neuhaus.
The late Roman Catholic convert priest Richard John Neuhaus and I often talked when Neuhaus was starting his far right First Things journal. I contributed several articles to some of the early issues of First Things. (This was before I left the religious right, the Republican Party and my evangelical background.)
According to what Neuhaus told me back then First Things was supposed to be the pro-life/Catholic version of the Norman Podhoretz's Commentary magazine. Podhoretz who, at first, was friendly with Neuhaus broke with him over Neuhaus's extremist anti-abortion -- and extremist anti-American - views. This was after Neuhaus started openly describing the U.S. government as an illegitimate "regime." As the Washington Post noted:
Father Neuhaus played a central role in forging an alliance between evangelical Protestants and Catholics and in bringing conservative Christians into the Republican conservative coalition in the 1980s and 1990s. During that same period, he began an institute and published a journal, First Things, that reflected his interests in religion and public policy. Mary Ann Glendon, the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, said Father Neuhaus was a guiding force in the creation of faith-based initiatives -- private religious groups given government funding to carry out social policy -- that have become identified with President Bush's White House. Father Neuhaus set the groundwork for the idea in two books, To Empower People written with Peter Berger, and Christian Faith and Public Policy (both 1977).
As I Alexander F. Remington noted in the Washington Post on January 9, 2009, in 2005, Time magazine named Father Neuhaus one of the 25 most influential Evangelicals in America.
"Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed," Father Neuhaus once wrote. It was a stance that was at times too rigid for many conservatives. After President Bill Clinton vetoed in 1996 a ban on a procedure critics call partial-birth abortion, Father Neuhaus said, "We are at a point at which millions of conscientious American citizens are reflecting upon whether this is a legitimate regime." That same year, he sponsored a symposium on "The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics."
Colson and Neuhaus were the moving force behind the "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" initiative/manifesto which called for a (non-violent) holy war against secularism. And that "initiative" took the Far Right Reconstructionist ideas of Rushdoony, dropped the most inflammatory rhetoric, and made them "mainstream," thus moving the so-called mainstream Evangelical enterprise to the far (anti-government) right.
The groups Kreeft, Colson and Neuhaus had in mind to "bring together" were alienated Evangelicals, Orthodox Jews and conservative Roman Catholics, wallowing in their sense of victimhood, to which Kreeft added Muslims. Of course the ultra-conservative Kreeft and extremist Neuhaus were against contraception and equated it with abortion. Thus the logic of their argument was that of my fathers' too: the United States Government was enabling murder, was disparaged as a "regime" that needed to be overthrown.
These neo-conservative/Roman Catholic "intellectuals" helped set the stage for the anti-contraception Quiverfull Movement and for the Patriarchy Movement, giving a gloss of intellectual respectability and aid and comfort to what were nothing more than oppressive ideas rooted in an anti-Constitutional theocratic far right wish list for changes that were supposed to roll back the parts of the democratic processes - say Roe v. Wade, women's rights and gay rights -- that far right Catholics and Protestants didn't approve of.
Few men have done more to trade (betray?) the gospel of love for the gospel of empowering corporate America and greed through the misuse of the so-called culture war issues to get lower middle class whites to vote against their own economic interests in the name of "family values.” Wherever Nixon is today he must be welcoming a true son of far right dirty politics to eternity with a “Job well done.”
Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His new book is Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible's Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics--and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway