JACKSON, Tenn. – Sept. 23, 2005 – Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, author of more than 20 books and one of the leading evangelical leaders in the United States, visited Union University Sept. 22 and spoke in a special chapel service that evening.
Union is one of two universities in the world that Colson has allowed to use his name. At Union, Hal Poe occupies the Charles Colson Chair of Faith and Culture.
Colson, a former aide to President Richard Nixon, pleaded guilty to Watergate-related charges and served seven months in prison. He became a Christian prior to his prison term, and shortly after his release launched Prison Fellowship, the world’s largest prison outreach that serves the spiritual and practical needs of prisoners around the world.
During his visit to Union, Colson took time to answer a few questions.
Q: Former U.S Senate chaplain Richard Halverson said a few years ago that Christian higher education is the last hope for America. Do you agree with that assessment?
Colson: I wouldn’t put Christian education exclusively in the position as the last hope for America, because I think that’s a bit of a generous statement. But I think it is crucially important. It is crucially important for the church to have people who are equipped to think Christianly.
When people are equipped to think Christianly, they will transform the nation. If we’re ever going to transform the nation, people have to have a biblical understanding of life and be able to see the false values of the culture around us and to respond to that. Christian education, I think, is essential to doing that.
Q: How does Union University, specifically, fit into that?
Colson: I think it’s one of the premier institutions in America in teaching biblical worldview. Not just teaching it explicitly, but implicitly by making it part of the very fabric of the curriculum.
David Dockery has as good an understanding of this as anybody in America. This is what makes Union distinctive, in my opinion. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been here now three times, because I want to encourage the group of scholars that Dockery has assembled who do understand this. When I come here, I feel like I’m intellectually at home among people who share the same vision I have, so I strongly support Union.
Q: What should Christian higher education look like?
Colson: It should have a curriculum which is rooted in biblical revelation. In other words, the curriculum in every discipline reflects, at its root, Christian truth. Science is, in my opinion, impossible without a biblical understanding of the universe. The great revolution in western science came about as a result of the Christian belief system.
But individuals can learn on their own and don’t need to be taking the curriculum in a college. What’s distinctive about a Christian college is it is a community of scholars, where we reinforce each other, where students begin to absorb it and create a culture of learning and a culture of learning about biblical worldview on a campus. That’s why the community sense of teaching is so important, and you really have that here at Union. I’ve been on a lot of campuses which are big, sprawling institutions. There isn’t the sense of community that exists here.
Q: What role should Christians and churches play in politics?
Colson: To answer that, it took me 400 pages of a book called “Kingdoms in Conflict” in 1986, which discusses the relationship of the church and state, religion and politics, in real depth. The Aristotelian definition of politics is how we organize our common lives together. What Christianity does is talk about how we live our common lives together, so they’re obviously intimately related.
As the state gained influence in the 20th century, politics absorbs more of our attention, understandably, and Christians can’t neglect it. Politics today determines the shape of the law by which we live. Christians believe deeply in the rule of law, we believe deeply in limited government – that’s something that came out of the Reformation.
We need to be very much involved without attaching ourselves as an adjunct to one political party or the other. Always be free to prophetically criticize either party, and be open to winning people to Christ, whether they’re red or blue. This divide in America right now is not a good thing. Not a good thing, certainly for the spread of the gospel.
Q: Are too many Christians uniting themselves to one party and not maintaining that prophetic distance?
Colson: I don’t think it is right for any Christian leader to make partisan endorsements. I never have. Everybody who knows me knows that I’m a lifelong Republican and I’m a political conservative. I’m conservative because I believe Christians are fundamentally conservative in that we share one thing with historic conservatism – and that is we believe that we are governed by revealed truth, not by the utopian schemes of today’s coffeehouse dreamers. Any Christian is by definition a conservative because he believes in revealed truth. So there’s a natural sympathy to a conservative political movement on the part of most Christians.
Today, the two parties are pretty well aligned – conservative and liberal – and in terms of being friendly to the Christian agenda, the Republican Party is certainly, as a generalization, much friendlier than Democrats. The Democrats are showing a lot of hostility to religion. Every time we speak out on an issue, a lot of Democratic leaders tell us we should have no business being involved in politics.
So I think the politicians are creating a divide, but I think Christians have to be very careful never to confuse our political sympathies with our religious convictions.