Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Chuck Colson fought for the forgotten

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed April 25, 2012
Former inmate Robert Sutten, left, hugs Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, at the White House in 2003.
Former inmate Robert Sutten, left, hugs Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, at the White House in 2003.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Watergate figure Chuck Colson became a born-again Christian, founded prison ministry
  • William Bennett says Colson fought tirelessly for the forgotten and condemned
  • Colson's mission was to address the root causes of social problems, Bennett writes
  • Colson lamented the breakdown of family, lack of mentors for young people, he says

Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- Chuck Colson was a man in full. The former White House special counsel and Watergate accomplice turned born-again Christian and prison evangelist, reminded us all, through his muscular Christianity and ever-present Marine training, that every life is worth saving, that no man should be left behind.

He fought tirelessly on behalf of the forgotten and condemned. He defended the defenseless.

In his passing on April 21 at the age of 80, we remember one of America's premier cultural ambassadors. Through his Prison Fellowship ministry, Angel Tree program, weekly radio broadcasts, books, and sermons, Colson touched countless lives, from the most innocent to those on death row.

He pleaded guilty in 1974 to obstruction of justice in the Nixon White House Watergate scandal and served seven months in prison. But before he went to prison, he underwent a dramatic conversion and became a born-again Christian. Colson emerged from prison a man forever transformed.

William Bennett
William Bennett

Last year, on one of his final public speaking tours, Colson summarized his ongoing mission for the past 40 years -- addressing the root causes of the cultural problems threatening our society.

"I discovered early on that the reasons the prisons were being filled wasn't all the sociological theories about crime that we hear generally, it was the... lack of moral training during the morally formative years," Colson explained. "We are raising a generation that lacks male role models. The family has broken down. These kids aren't learning character."

Colson understood that the family is the knot that holds the fabric of civilization together. If the family unravels, then so does society -- economically, socially, and morally. And now, it appears we may be headed that way. Today, more than half of births to American women under 30 happen outside marriage. The out-of-wedlock birth rate in the United States has passed 40% and more than 70% of all births to black women are outside marriage.

Children today are the product of fewer successful marriages than perhaps ever before. With high unemployment rates, children are increasingly less likely to see a father or mother getting up and going to work in the morning. Less than half of the American population attends church on a weekly basis. The founding virtues that made this country so successful -- hard work, fidelity and faith -- are in diminishing supply.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook.com/cnnopinion

These virtues can't be taught in ethics classes or pop culture movies, but rather, they must be learned through example, particularly that of mentors and role models. Our children, boys in particular, are drawn to the strongest and loudest forces around them. If positive influences, like parents, teachers, and coaches, are missing, children will gravitate to something inferior, like drugs or gangs.

Colson would often illustrate this with stories of convicts leaving prison only to be handed $100 by the guards and told, "See you again in a couple weeks." For the overwhelming majority, it was true. They returned home to the same gang they left, the same crimes they committed before, and they ended up back in prison again several weeks later.

Colson understood the solution to these problems wasn't political or economical, but cultural. On March 30, Colson gave a speech at the Wilberforce Weekend Conference in northern Virginia. It was the last public speech he would ever give. In it he remarked, "Politics is nothing but an expression of culture ... so if things are bad, don't think it's going to be solved by an election. It's going to be solved by us."

All great change starts from the bottom up -- from the dinner table to the football field to the prisons. If you want less poverty, less crime and less social breakdown, you need stronger families, stronger churches, and stronger communities. Chuck Colson dedicated himself to this cause with unparalleled fervor and compassion. He will be sorely missed.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 10:07 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT