Prayer in America

photo of Charles Colson

Subject: Charles Colson
Interviewer: Chip Duncan

The segments included in this interview* excerpt were recorded in Fall 2006, as part of Prayer in America, a look at the history of civil liberties in America and the controversy surrounding the USA PATRIOT ACT. The documentary is a production of The Duncan Entertainment Group, Iowa Public Television is the presenter and flagship affiliate for the PBS system. Colson is a syndicated columnist, author, and radio commentator. He is the founder of Prison Fellowship and Prison Fellowship International, Lansdowne, VA.

(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)

Briefly describe the Prison Fellowship Ministry
The Prison Fellowship is 30 years old this year, it started when I got out of prison and felt God's call on my life. I resisted it for a full year and a half because I really didn't wanna be a minister. But then it became an overwhelming sense that this is where God wanted me, and so I have been doing it for the past 30 years. And what we do is go in and do teaching, all day long, and Bible studies, and people have work projects. It's an 18 month program in prison, and then a year of mentorship when they get out.

We line them up with a mentor so that, when they get out of prison, they've got someone that they can lean on and guide them, and help them find a job, and a place to live, and all that sort of thing. Which is critical. You lose about 90% of the inmates during the first months after prison, because they don't have that support system. So, it's a very intensive program. You're immersed in it, and we basically created a culture which is designed to assist in the transformation of that person's life. And so they come in as hardened criminals, they go out, hopefully, as law-abiding citizens.

We've had an 8% failure rate. The University of Pennsylvania did a study and found that where the recidivism rate nationally is about 65 to 70%, the recidivism rate, that is people rearrested and back in prison within two years of release, was 8% for our graduates. So we know this works. It's been so successful we've been sued by the Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Interesting irony, because they've always been on the liberal side of the spectrum wanting to help disadvantaged people, now they're preventing us from helping disadvantaged people. But we'll see how that turns out in the 8th Circuit.

You argue for a transformational Model of Change. Can you describe that?
There's two ways you can approach change in a person's life or radical change in a person's life. One is by therapy. Therapy teaches people how to manage their problems; or there's transformation, which is the gospel message, the good news, that in Christ your sins are forgiven and you have a new life, your born again. That's transformation which puts the problems behind you rather than teaching you how to deal with the problems. It's a very radical difference.

I was in the prison one day, in the prison we run in Texas, where the first one started in 1997. An inmate was standing by the board, and he was doing some teaching, and I brought in a bunch of VIPs in the back of the room, and he had a two panels up on his board, one said transformation, one said therapy. And he said, you want to know what's wrong with therapy? Turned to the people of the library, and I said, yeah. He said, I went through six therapy programs in prison, I'm back in prison every time. That's what's wrong with therapy. We have found this sticks. This works.

What do you think it is that makes it work from one inmate to another? I mean because some people would argue therapy has worked well for them, the same way this might for a different person.
Well I'm sure some people have been helped by therapy, obviously. But it's got a pretty poor history. If you look at the therapeutic programs in prisons, particularly with alcohol and drug cases, the success rate is about 10%. The success rate in transformational programs is closer to 80%, in drugs and alcohol. So what changes? Basically, our belief is you have to transform the human will. All of us our moved by our will. I mean that's a bit of a Nietzschean phrase, but it's true. And, unless you can subdue that will, unless you can subdue your passions, unless you can learn about deferred gratification, unless you have some outside intervention that changes the natural disposition of your life, you're gonna go on, you're gonna go on doing those things.

Anybody who's ever tried to get off of drugs or alcohol, or even smoking, 'cause I had a terrible problem with that, knows that you've gotta change the human will. We believe that Jesus Christ transforms the human will, that's exactly what happens in any conversion. I've now seen it in the lives of thousands upon thousands of inmates. And, I know that it is not only a spiritual reality, but that it is a transforming effect on human behavior.

How does the program work for non-Christians?
Non-Christians are invited into the program and are in the program, in all the prisons where we run it because we welcome everybody who wants to come. And some have come into it and found it too intense, not too religious, because we don't require them to take part in any of the religious activities. But too intense in the fact that we start people working at 5:30 in the morning and quit at ten o'clock at night, and it's seven days a week, and there is no television, and there's no fooling around. We're serious about immersing these people in the different culture, a different way of life.

So sometimes non-believing people will drop out for that reason. I don't know that we've had anybody who has quit the program in any of the prisons we're in, which is six states, because they felt they were being proselytized or pushed into Christianity, 'cause we don't do that, we don't believe in that, we don't believe that would do any good. It wouldn't be real. So, we respect their free will.

But, a lot of people have gone through it, graduated, gotten a lot of help because they've learned some principles about life, and remained Muslims, or remained Agnostics, or Jewish. Ah, so ait's not exclusively a Christian program. If you wanna get the full benefits of it, you, as a believer, you're gonna get them and they'll be on a lasting basis.

Can you talk your philosophy on restorative justice? I know you've covered it a little bit.
I came to realize in the 1980's when I was about ten years into this program, that you couldn't be ministering into people in prison, without being mindful of the conditions in the prison, the conditions interest the criminal justice, the sentencing rules. I mean you had to be concerned with this because you're concerned with the whole person. And so we started an arm called Justice Fellowship, and we began to study, really what caused crime and how you would do something about it, and what kind of responsible sentencing you would have. About half the people in prison in America today are in for non-dangerous offenses, they're not, they'd be just as safe on the outside. And we're spending anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 a year to keep them incarcerated, which makes no sense whatsoever.

So we started a program which we call Restorative Justice, which has now caught on. I ran into an Attorney General from New Zealand at some conference and he said we've, we've adopted your Restorative Justice, it really works. The basic principle is that you want justice not only to see that the scales are balanced, which is one purpose of justice, you want justice not only to restrain antisocial behavior, you want justice not only to incarcerate people, you wanna make it so that it enables them to be reintegrated back into society. In other words, a justice system should be trying to restore the broken relationships in community that led to crime.

So it deals with all the elements of it, it deals with dealing with the families, it deals with sentencing reforms that do not put people away for 40 years when they're not really dangerous. It deals with punishments that have some redemptive value, like people being put in work programs, or weekend incarceration, but stay on their jobs and keep their families together. It deals with all the elements that we think are possible to achieve restoration in the community from the damages caused by crime. That's the shorthand definition.

Christians take their own view of justice than either the ideology of the left or the right in secular products. Justice classically defined is giving each person his due. And, liberals have historically looked at that as giving benefits from government to people; conservatives have looked at it as, somebody breaks the law, you punish 'em. We say Biblical justice embraces both of those considerations, but it embraces a third, and the third is the Hebrew concept of Shalom, which means not just peace, the way you'll hear people use it as a greeting, but the restoration of concord and harmony in life, so that there can be human flourishing, the way people are supposed to live together. And so, we have tried to encourage people to think of justice in a broader term, that is, what do you do about restoring the Shalom that has been disturbed by criminal behavior.

Some people are highly critical of the program though and the Penn study's methodology.
Well, I take the University of Pennsylvania study at face value. It's based upon raw data given to them by the Department of Corrections at Texas. It's not something you can read one way or another. You might challenge the methodology, you might say, well you should count people who dropped out as well, among failures. We don't because we use a self-selection process, we take anybody the state gives us. But we have a very high standard, which means a lot of people are gonna drop out because they just don't wanna keep up with the work. Well, we don't count those as failures.

We told the State of Texas we would contract to run an intensive 18?month program with a follow up mentoring on the outside, and we would be measured by the results that we got from the graduates of that program. In other words, if somebody completes the program, now we'll certify that we think they're gonna make it. That's what was studied. Some people criticized it and said, well you should of taken everybody. But, that's preposterous, because we had some people drop out after the first week and it's irrelevant to the recidivism. I think the University of Pennsylvania methodology was correct, I think the researchers were correct, the critics are people who don't want it to succeed, basically. If you look at who's criticizing it, you will see people who have an axe to grind.

The problem with our program is simple, it works. And that's the real offense to secular orthodoxy today. Secular orthodoxy resists Christians making any kid of a truth claim in public life. It's bad enough to make a truth claim, to say that this is true and we know it to be true; it's something else to back it up with empirical evidence, which is what we do. And that's why you've seen a lot of static over the study, that's why you've seen Barry Lynn sue us, not because he was that upset about what we were doing, but because we not only did it, but we got a independent study by the University of Pennsylvania peer reviewed at Harvard and Princeton that said this works. And that's the real offense.

One of the arguments that I know some of the critics make is that the notion that not everybody is welcome in the program, that there are exclusions.
It's just not true. We are required by state law to take anybody they give us. So there isn't any cherry picking. The cherry picking would come in the sense that nobody's eligible for any programming in prison until they have reached a certain stage in their development in prison, then they can get into therapeutic programs, then they can get into drug programs, then they can get into education classes. Anybody who's eligible for any in-prison program can come to us.

The other thing that could be argued skews the results, but I don't believe so, is this is a re-entry program, so that people at the end of their sentences get this, so they've spent a longer time in prison before they are eligible for this. You couldn't make somebody eligible for this who was gonna get out ten years later and you're preparing 'em for entry. So, just by the definition of the program, there's a certain selectiveness.

But, in Iowa, that isn't the case. In Iowa we take anybody. And we just had a fellow with a life sentence graduate. State of Iowa's now using him, and putting him in another prison where he can mentor other inmates. So, I mean we know it works and we've seen the evidence, and I've met the evidence. And it's all well and good for people to criticize it, but sometimes that's fallacious.

Can you talk about the Iowa Court Case?
Well, I used to practice law for many years, and I have studied Constitutional laws, I got an earned doctorate in it when I was in law school, when you gave those things to people. And have read every religious liberty case that's come down the pike in a long time. This is the most outrageous. This takes 20 pages of a 145 page decision to analyze what Evangelicals believe. And the judge came to the conclusion that what we believe is completely out of the mainstream of American life, we're unlike any other religious group, Lutherans, Baptists, comes as a surprise to me and the 20,000,000 Baptists like me, that Evangelicals are considered out of the mainstream. He described the doctrines that we believe in as being extreme and not held by many Christians, which is preposterous, they all come from the same creeds of the ancient church. He said we're contemptuous of Roman Catholics, which is the most preposterous, because I'm co-chairman with Father Richard Neuhaus, of a group called Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Now the chairman of the board of this ministry who's about to take my place is a Roman Catholic. So to say that is just ridiculous.

He then goes on, basically, to say that, because we are cult-like, in a sense, describing us as, by nature, coercive because we believe people need to be born again, that anything we do on government property, we become, in effect, a state actor and therefore, our presence is unconstitutional.

This has far-reaching implications for every religious enterprise on the market. Every faith-based program, Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, are all in danger if this decision, which is an extraordinarily sweeping decision, is upheld on appeal. I don't believe it will be, I don't think it can be.

He further issued an order for what essentially is punitive damages. Everything the state had paid us over the years as their portion, where we did the secular training during the day, which the state said we did beautifully, gave them a bargain, cheaper than they could have done it, he ordered all of that to be paid back. It was all earned under a contract and paid. It just shows a brooding and pervasive animus on his part against religion. And I know anything about the judge, but, reading that, it's perfectly obvious that's what he bears.

There's a lot of talk today about separation of church and state, and it's probably one of the real hot button issues. Do you have a a personal sense of how America can and should build a bridge here instead of creating a divide?
In 1986 I wrote a 486 page book called Kingdoms in Conflict, in which I dealt with the whole question of church, state, and religion and political life, which are two different issues. And I went back and reread it recently, because my publisher wants to reissue it. And I found it incredibly, similar to the issues we're facing today, and it's 20 years later. But, we're basically dealing with the same questions.

An accurate reading of the history of this country leads you to the realization that, in this country a unique thing happened, that was the merging of a lot of great ideas out of the Enlightenment, secular ideas, with a Biblical tradition. At least to the extent, or certainly to the extent of under girding our laws. We also embraced, most of the principles of an unwritten constitution in Britain, including the Anglo-American Jurisprudence tradition, at that point the Anglo Jurisprudence tradition.

So you have deep Christian roots. The basic consensus upon which the moral values of the country were formed were largely Christian, or at minimum deist. So it's hard today to listen to people who are saying, well there should be no religious influence in public life of any kind. That would have horrified the founders and it's very clear from their writings.

There's enormous confusion over the Establishment Clause, which is of equal weight with the Free Exercise Clause, one is not stronger than the other. The court decisions have been muddled badly, by I believe overly zealous, secular, aggressive assault upon religious values. I'm a citizen, I can express my convictions based on my religious beliefs in public life, every citizen can do this. And I would argue that when we go into a prison, we are offering, to those who wish to come and take part in it, an opportunity to do something with their lives, to find a relationship with God, to mend their past, and that this is a good thing.

This is, interestingly, how prisons started, with the Quaker experiment in prisons at the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, it was started as a Quaker institution, penitentiary, so people could go and repent, correctional institutions so their behavior could be corrected. It was a long history of religious, roots in the prison system, specifically, as there is in every walk of American life. So, I strongly believe in the separation of church and state. I do not want the state telling me what I can believe, I do not want a theocracy, that would be the worst thing that could ever happen to America. Yet we're accused of that.

But I want religious people to be able to express their convictions freely, and to minister freely in public life without being told by the government it can't or being facilitated by the government, facilitate. Being prevented by the government from doing so or being given special privileges because they do it.

Back to the Interchange Program, can you discuss the differences and the parts that are secular versus, spiritual and in how they're funded?
Well, first of all, the overwhelming portion of the funding comes from Austin, Texas, 100%. Arkansas we just opened, 100%. So the state funding was offered by the State of Iowa, offered by the State of Kansas. We took it to the extent of 20 or 30%, I guess of the funds. In order to provide secular programming during the day, because we do a lot of teaching about job skills, a lot of the stuff that would be done by the prison if the people weren't in our program. And, for that portion, we have attempted, not without some mistakes along the way, to keep the funding segregated, the judge, in his decision in Iowa says, well, we're using the state fax machine for religious literature. Okay, we should of bought a separate fax machine, I guess. It seems a little silly.

But, it was minutia. We have done a pretty good job of taking funding for a particular, secular function, nothing to do with religion, and then using our own money for the Bible studies, the staff, we pay for most everything that goes on in the programming of the prison. So the state is getting a bargain. We got the contract with a competitive bid. Somebody else came in and bid a whole lot higher, but they gave it to us because we were willing to raise a lot of private money.

Can you talk specifically about the prayer component in inmates lives as transformational?
I don't think it's any different in an inmates life than it is in anyone else's life. If you believe in the supernatural, if you believe in a God who created us, if you believe that Jesus Christ is who He says He is and died on the cross for my sin, then, we are told by Jesus and by the Bible, that we are to come to him in prayer, we are to make our needs be known with prayer and thanksgiving. We come before him. And this is the way you come into the presence of God. I find some of my most significant spiritual moments are when I'm in deep prayer and seeking God's intervention, seeking God's guidance. Jesus set the example with his own prayer life. And, to me, it is the spiritual pipeline that each of us have with God.

And terribly important is spiritual discipline. When you begin to get weak on this, you begin to see your life caving in in a lot of other ways. So, I think it's a vital lifeline for Christians, whether you're in prison or out of prison. I was a very practical guy, trained in the law, believed deeply in analytical thinking, was steeped in philosophy, no religious background at all, and didn't believe in miracles or anything like that. I have had some times in my life when it has been scary, that God answered prayer in the most unbelievable way. At just exactly the right time. And I've had it happen enough times and seen it happen in enough people's lives that I do not dismiss anyone who says to me that they've prayed and God has answered that prayer.

How was your own prison experience transformational?
When I left the White House in 1973, the Watergate controversy was raging, though I didn't ever expect to be part of it. But I felt a great emptiness in my life, and I met a man who'd been a client of mine before I'd gone to the White House, I went back to be his counsel once again, and he witnessed to me about Christ in his life. And it was few months later that I went and met with him one evening, and listened to what had happened in his life, and read C.S. Lewis' book Mere Christianity, parts of it that night, and surrendered my own life in a flood of tears in his driveway. So I was a Christian when I went to prison.

It was about a year later that I pled guilty, largely because of my Christian faith, it had become publicly known, and so everybody was judging my Christianity by how I testified. I'd get two piles of mail, big pile here saying, now that you're a Christian, you can tell the world what a rat Richard Nixon is; another pile, now that you're a Christian, you'll tell the world what a good guy Richard Nixon is. I realized I couldn't win, so I went in and pled guilty to something I hadn't been charged with, went to prison. I thank God I had faith when I went into that prison, because it would of been a really tough, it was a tough enough experience, but I really, sensed God's presence, and I really saw in the prison, the relationship I was able to build with some of the men and some of us formed a Bible study group. Three former dope pushers, a car thief, a stock swindler, and the former Special Counselor to the President of the United States on our knees at night praying. And I came to really love those guys.

And I also realized while I was in prison that nobody cared about, this is really the end of the line, this is really no mans land. And, when I got out of prison, I didn't plan to go into prison ministry, but what I had experienced in prison, the hopelessness, the guys lying on their bunk, staring up into the emptiness, their minds corroding and their bodies atrophying, literally. And I couldn't get that out of my mind and, for months after I was released from prison, I anguished over it, and then I started going back and visiting, and went back to my own Bible study in the prison I'd been in. For about a year I wrestled with God, and then it became clear, this is what he wanted for my life. So, it was largely my experiences in the prison that made me realize, how much was needed there, how much help was needed, and I came to the realization God put me there for a purpose.

Why do you think, statistically, so many of our prisons are so crowded? What's the underlying cause, because you mentioned that when we first started talking, that the numbers have dramatically increased. What's happening?
Well, the typical 1950's family, they sat around the table, said blessings, kids went off to school and came home and the dad was probably working and the mom was probably home. They had a lot of parental discipline, they had very few distractions, there was not a separate youth culture that pandered to the highest-spending group in America today, which is the youth. There was, I would say a sense of moral sanity in the country, which is not there today.

And what happened is the family began to break down, the inner-city collapsed, there was less unemployment among minorities in the inner-city than there was among the whites in the '50's. And the moment you began to see that breakdown in the family, then that breakdown in the inner-city community, and you saw kids coming out. I walked though Rikers Island Prison one day, from cell block to cell block for two hours, with these kids who'd been swept off the streets of New York, largely Hispanic and African American, and I would talk about God the Father, and they'd look at you with a surprise. They didn't know who the Father was, they didn't know who their own father was.

So, the breakdown of the family, the lack of moral training during the morally formative years, which is part of the loss of Christian disciplines and spiritual disciplines in our own lives, that took place in the '60's, and on into the '80's, and the '90's, it's gotten progressively worse. Which is why the prison population's been going up like this, it has nothing to do with economics, it has nothing to do with the number of prisons you're building, it has to do with a moral collapse in society.

Professors Wilson and Ernstein at Harvard, in 1986, did a landmark book on the criminal personality, which showed that it was lack of moral training during those important years for young people, that was the primary cause of crime. Slight genetic connection, very minor, but a lack of spiritual discipline. So, if you're going to solve the crime problem, you've got to as I told Prince Philip when I received the Templeton Prize, he said, what can we do about all these kids getting in trouble in England? I said, send 'em to Sunday school. And he laughed, he thought I was kidding. I wasn't kidding.

Christie Davies at the University of Redding had done a study showing that, when Sunday school attendance was at the highest in England, crime was at the lowest. Sunday attendance has gone down, crime has gone up. It's not rocket science. We pay a price for this. When we strip God out of public life, when we strip, when we, we tear down the family, when we pollute our culture with stuff that's on television, and then we sit around and say, I wonder why crime's going up, that's why--

So what is prayer?
Prayer is communication with God. Prayer is when you come and, ah, prostrate yourself, if not physically at least, ah, figuratively, before God. Ah, and, ah, make your request be made known to him with prayer and thanksgiving, we're told in scripture. So, it's our way of communicating with God, it's our way of humbling ourselves, it's our way of getting things straight between creature and the Creator. Ah, it reminds me, whenever I'm in prayer, of who I am, which is pretty insignificant. Ah, and yet I have a right to come before the throne of God.

Are you able to specifically attribute the success of the program to the Christian message, or would bringing more religious study in general into prisons be good? For example if a Muslim, or Jewish, or Hindu program was attempting to do the same thing, do you think they would have the same kind of success?
No I don't, because I think the gospel is the one way in which you change a person's life; however, let me quickly say, I would defend and fight for the rights of Muslims, Jews, and other religious groups to do the same things in prison we do. We first got permission from the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1975, actually, before the ministry was organized, to take some men out of prison and work with them. I said to the head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, he said to me, well we don't want to do any special favors for Christians. I said, good, don't do it for Christians. But any religious group that believes it can improve the lives of these men, come in. That's what pluralism is, that's what freedom of religious expression means. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator certain unalienable Rights. All men, and that means not just Christians, that's Jefferson's ringing endorsement of that in the Declaration of Independence. We'd do well to remind ourselves of that today, which we, we seem to forget.

But, no, I'd like to see more religious groups in prison. I don't think they can have the same results we do because I believe mine is true. They believe theirs is true, give them the same chance.

How has prayer changed in American life over the years?
The American founders were deeply, religious in the sense that they respected the Almighty. Some of them were deists, some of them were Christians. So that all of their events were bathed in prayer. Prayer was very common in the public places in the early days of this republic. Most of the universities and colleges were Christian and prayer was a part of it, there were chapels and prayer disciplines and spiritual disciplines. It was a community affair. Even in the days running up to the Civil War in America, prison was a communal affair, the bells would ring at 12 o'clock in New York, and thousands would come out in the streets to pray, it was the great lay prayer revival that started in a small conference room, on the lowest east side of New York, and spread all up the Hudson Valley, and in through Canada, and then skipped across the world to the various English speaking countries. And it was all public prayer. You would have public prayer at all kinds of events. Even as I was a boy growing up, it was very common to see people praying in public and having prayer events.

Today, you have to do it behind closed doors and be careful how you do it, and you're told what you can say and what you can't say. It's all part of the secularizing of America which, the people I deal with are the product of that, because they have lost any spiritual awareness, and almost been told it's a bad thing. And I think we've paid a heavy price for the secularizing of America. I'd love to see the day when the church bells rang and people would come out at noon and make a public profession of faith, as they wish. And if they don't wish to they don't have to.