Requiem for a Nixon Man
The Redemption of Charles Colson's Loyalty
by Russell D. Moore
If you've ever had that archetypal dream in which you realize you've gone to work naked or that you're taking a test you haven't studied for, then you'll recognize the feeling of embarrassed dread I felt when I realized what I was doing. I was waiting in a restaurant lobby to meet one of my heroes, Prison Fellowship leader Chuck Colson. I had a book along with me to read while I waited. Unfortunately, and idiotically for me, it was a novel titled Nixon Man, with the cover art of a father and son, with the son wearing a rubber Richard Nixon mask.
I had just picked up what I was reading at the time to take with me, without one thought that this would probably be seen as, at best, some kind of ironic tease and, at worst, an insult to Colson, who had been the prototypical "Nixon man" in his pre-conversion days, a loyalty that led him to the penitentiary and to public ridicule in the global press.
I quickly hid the book in my briefcase. Just as I wouldn't want to be reading a book on the history of rum with an ex-drunk, I certainly didn't want to be reading a novel about Richard Nixon to an ex-Nixon man. When Colson arrived, I sat nervously through the first few minutes of the lunch, partly because I couldn't believe I was dining with a man whose books had changed the whole trajectory of my ministry—from his personal testimony in Born Again to his manifesto on the dangers of politicized Christianity in Kingdoms in Conflict.
But my adrenal glands were also pounding because I knew I had a book about Richard Nixon in that bag at my feet and, like the character in Edgar Allan Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart," I was afraid Colson would somehow recoil from it, even without seeing it, by the sheer weight of his guilt.
It wasn't long, however, before Colson himself brought up the subject of Nixon. He talked about Nixon's brilliance, and about how history gets it wrong when it portrays Nixon as awkward and brooding. "He was a charismatic persona," Colson said. "That wasn't conveyed on television, but with a group of people in a room . . . there was no one like him." Within minutes I could tell, Nixon wasn't an off-limits part of Colson's shameful biography. Colson was a repentant sinner, to be sure. He was a new creation in Christ. But, in some way, he was still a Nixon man.
A Good Root
In the weeks and months after the death of Chuck Colson, many of us have reflected on how God changed the old White House "hatchet man," the dirty trickster who participated in perhaps the greatest challenge to the American constitutional system in over two hundred years of our history. I was -perturbed to read newspaper and website accounts of Colson that treated him, after his death, as though he were still the Watergate criminal, as though his work in the prisons for nearly forty years after his conviction was just some way to "atone" for his crimes.
Colson didn't need to "atone" for Watergate. He believed the blood of Christ had atoned, fully, for all his crimes, both those for which he was indicted and those that would never be seen until Judgment Day. He didn't need to rehabilitate his image; he was the one who sought to discredit his image, presenting himself as a sinner in need of forgiveness.
The secular media just couldn't see what it meant that the old Chuck Colson had been crucified with Christ and replaced with a new Colson, with a new heart, a new trajectory, and a new future. As an Evangelical Christian, I, of course, think we ought to emphasize constantly what it means to be born again, with the old gone and the new arrived.
But I fear that, in Colson's case, perhaps we could make it seem as though he traded in President Nixon for King Jesus, as though his transfer from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light was from the White House to the New Jerusalem. If so, we might miss something that was right about Colson's loyalty to Nixon, and how even what was wrong with it was rooted in something good.
That day at the table, as Colson talked about Nixon, I couldn't help thinking about my grandfather. Partly that was because the Evangelical titan reminded me of my grandfather: both were kindly but tough ex-military men who seemed always to be on a mission, and both were Southern Baptists married to Roman Catholic women. But most of all, what made me think about my late grandfather was the fact that he, too, was a Nixon man. Now, he wasn't a Colson sort of Nixon man. He never would have driven over his grandmother for Tricky Dick. As a matter of fact, he only voted for Nixon once.
A Kept Word
My grandfather was a milkman, a committed New Deal Democrat. He remembered what the Democratic party had done for the South, in rural electrification, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Social Security, and so on. He never voted for a single Republican, he said, for any office. Now, in one sense, that wasn't hard to do—since, in Mississippi for most of the twentieth century, virtually every office was settled in the Democratic primary. Even so, by the late 1980s, Mississippi had gone Republican in several presidential elections, had elected two Republican U.S. senators and a few U.S. congressmen, and even a sheriff or two.
I remember walking along with my grandfather at the Neshoba County Fair, the statewide event at which politicians tried to rally the faithful, when my grandfather told me about the importance of voting Democratic, of standing with the little guy. "I only voted Republican once," he told me, "I voted for Richard Nixon for president in 1972." Thinking about Watergate and the subsequent resignations under scandal of both Nixon and his running-mate, Vice President Spiro Agnew, I joked, "What a time to start!"
My grandfather turned on his heel, looked me in the eye, and with a stern voice said, "Don't you ever say that again."
"I don't regret my vote for Nixon for a minute," he continued. "I would do it again a thousand times over."
"George McGovern"—and he spat out the name with contempt—"said he would crawl on his hands and knees to Hanoi," he said. "Can you imagine such a man as president? It's disgraceful."
After my grandfather railed for a few minutes about the countercultural McGovernite hippies, he turned his attention to another matter. He talked about our hometown, flat on its back, after Hurricane Camille devastated the Gulf Coast in 1969—years before I was even born. He said that many people thought this was the end of life as they'd known it. "Richard Nixon came here and stood with us," he said. "He told us we'd be back and he'd be back when we were. That meant everything to a lot of people."
On that, my grandfather was representative of his neighbors. Even in the most severe days of Watergate, Nixon's approval rating was higher in our congressional district than anywhere else in the country. And, sure enough, even while in post-Watergate hiding, Nixon emerged from his exile in San Clemente in the mid-1970s to return to the site of Camille, to celebrate the construction of a beachfront Coliseum, signifying hurricane reconstruction. Nixon kept his word.
A Complex Virtue
Of course, loyalty isn't a simple matter. In order to be loyal to Nixon, my grandfather had to be disloyal to the party of his forebears. And, for Colson, loyalty to "the Old Man" meant saying and agreeing to things that are now forever a part of the shameful archived record of the worst presidential scandal in American history.
Most of us recognize loyalty as a virtue, at least when it comes to the loyalty we believe is owing to ourselves. But loyalty is a complicated, and perilous, ideal. In his book Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue, Eric Felten notes something of this complexity. Without loyalty, to country and to one's comrades, he writes, a military unit cannot do anything valorous in battle. On the other hand, he notes, this same loyalty can be degraded into a covering over of war crimes and battle atrocities.
Colson's life is emblematic, I think, of the kind of loyalty that ultimately can be—and was—redeemed. After his conversion, Colson wasn't a Nixon shill, continuing to cover over the bad deeds done in the White House. His conversion story was, at its base, a confession of guilt—and, necessarily, with that confession came an implication that Nixon was guilty, too.
But Colson was not like others who served in that White House. Mark Felt, the acting FBI director, took an appointment from President Nixon and then secretly and anonymously collaborated with his enemies in the press to bring him down. John Dean made his turning on Nixon into a cottage industry, twisting the rhetorical knife into the Old Man for forty years in print and in speaking engagements.
Colson was different. He walked away from the kind of loyalty that pulled him into disloyalty to the United States Constitution, but he never felt that Nixon was something for him to kick around.
The Centurions' Training
There was something in Colson's pre-Christian loyalty to Nixon that set the stage, I think, for his Christian following of Jesus. And Colson is hardly the first. When he started his ministry for training younger Christians to embrace his version of a Kuyperian "world-and-life view," he called the program "Centurions." Some were quick to note the irony in this. Centurions, after all, were Roman guards—the people who crucified Jesus Christ in the first place. I don't know what Colson had in mind with that name, but I find it appropriate given Colson's place in the history of the Church.
The Gospel of Luke tells us of Jesus' encounter with a centurion, an official of the Roman imperial army, who sent some people to ask for a sick servant of his to be healed. When Jesus approached his house, the centurion sent a message that he didn't expect Jesus' physical presence. All he needed was a word. As he put it, "For I too am a man under authority with soldiers under me: and I say to one, 'Go', and he goes, and to another, 'Come', and he comes; and to my servant, 'Do this', and he does it" (Luke 7:8). Luke writes that Jesus, upon hearing this, "marveled" and turned and announced that he had not seen such faith, "not even in Israel" (7:9).
The Bible, of course, takes a dim view of the Roman Empire. The entire drama of the Book of Revelation, for instance, is set in contradiction to pagan Rome's audacious claims about itself. And yet, the Roman imperial system, in some way, taught this centurion something about hierarchy and order in a way that, in the fullness of time, prepared him to recognize genuine kingship in the Lord Jesus.
In the same way, the centurion at the execution of Jesus—charged with putting to death the very Incarnation of God himself—exclaims, "Truly this man was the Son of God" (Mark 15:39). Such language doesn't emerge ex nihilo. Caesar, after all, claimed to be a son of the divine. The centurion recognized the kind of genuine authority he had seen parodied in his loyal service to his temporal (and even wicked) king.
Throughout history, God tends to work conversions in such a way that he reclaims gifts that, in his providence, he previously allowed to be used to different ends. Some of the disciples were fishermen—loyal to the training given to them by their fathers. Jesus, after their conversions, turns them into fishers of men. Saul of Tarsus learned the Hebrew Bible at the feet of Rabbi Gamaliel, and King Jesus ultimately uses this learning to argue for the Resurrection and the other mysteries of the Christian faith.
Loyalty can turn idolatrous, of course. And following after Christ means a relativizing of all other loyalties. Thus, Jesus said such shocking things about the dead burying their dead and about hating one's mother and father, and so on. But no one can follow after Jesus who doesn't have a sense of loyalty. The most treacherous sins in the Bible, after all, are rooted in disloyalty and in a refusal to give honor where honor is due. Think of Absalom and Judas and, behind all of them, Satan.
Chuck Colson's loyalty was a crucified loyalty, yes, but the loyalty he displayed to Christ wasn't wholly different from the kind of loyalty he learned under Nixon. As a matter of fact, one could argue that God providentially waited to reveal himself to Colson precisely because of the ways God intended to redeem and use the gifts forged in Colson's loyalty to Nixon.
Colson, for instance, never fit precisely in the pantheon of triumphalist Religious Right political activists of the 1980s and 1990s. He warned Evangelicals and Roman Catholics alike how their political hunger and desire for acceptance—combined with naiveté—could be taken advantage of by political operatives just like the one he used to be. He remembered, after all, Billy Graham in the West Wing. He stood for American exceptionalism and patriotism, but he always relativized that loyalty, sparking controversy, for instance, when he questioned in the pages of First Things whether judicial activism in the United States could lead to the "end of democracy."
He was a committed Evangelical Christian, but, as evidenced by everything from Prison Fellowship to the Evangelicals and Catholics Together project, he never allowed sectarian loyalties to keep him from the big, broad fellowship of mere Christianity.
A Loyal Disciple
Chuck Colson was no doubt disappointed in Richard Nixon. Nixon, after all, could have pardoned Colson and borne the full responsibility for Watergate himself. Before that, Nixon could have led in a way that might have channeled the commendable loyalty men such as Colson and Haldeman and Ehrlichman had for him into noble causes consistent with the Constitution.
But let's not pretend that Nixon was the devil, and let's certainly not assume that everything about -Colson's Nixon days were evil. They weren't, and they surely weren't wasted. When we, as the Church of Jesus Christ, benefited from Chuck Colson, we benefited from a character and a set of gifts that were forged, at least partially, on the other end of the table from Richard Nixon.
With the loss of Chuck Colson, we've lost a Christian hero. We've also lost a living picture of what it means to be a trophy of God's grace. Let's remember him as he would have us do. Let's remember him as one who stood with the prisoners and the orphans, with the unborn and the addicted. Let's remember him as one who stood up for the meaning of marriage and for compassion for those on death row. Let's remember him as a loyal follower of Jesus Christ. And yes, along with all that, as a Nixon man, too. •
Russell D. Moore is the author of Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches. He lives with his family in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice-President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and as preaching pastor at Highview Baptist Church. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“Requiem for a Nixon Man” first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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