Prison Fellowship Ministries is an evangelical ministry operated by convicted Watergate felon Chuck Colson. Prison Fellowship has a presence in the majority of prisons in the United States, in addition to an international presence in 88 countries. Prison Fellowship boasts that more than 150,000 prisoners participate in its Bible studies and seminars each year, while its newspaper is the most widely distributed prison newspaper in the United States.
While Colson has received some attention for his advocacy of restorative justice, limiting the jailing of nonviolent offenders, and improving prison conditions, he is an evangelical Protestant Christian who has significant support from the religious right foundations and his programs, such as Prison Fellowship’s Inner Change project, are clearly evangelical with United States District Judge Robert W. Pratt ruling in the Inner Change case that the program is “overwhelmingly devotional in nature and intended to indoctrinate Inner Change inmates into the Evangelical Christian belief system.” Since the 1980s, Colson’s religious views have shifted to the right with attacks on the separation of church and state, public education, evolution, and reproductive rights while advocating that the government post religious creeds such as the Ten Commandments in its buildings. Colson also routinely attacks gay and lesbian and advocates a patriarchal view of family where men are the have the moral and political responsibility to be “leaders” of their families.
Colson, who has published multiple books, has also gained influence in the Christian right through his regular columns for Christianity Today and his daily radio column “Breakpoint” broadcast on 1,000 religious radio stations across the country. As a testament to his influence, Colson received the Templeton Prize in 1993, a million-dollar cash reward given annually to people who have done significant work to advance conservative Christianity. Colson has used his influence in the Christian right to promote increasingly extreme viewpoints over the past few years. In September of 2005 Colson linked Hurricane Katrina to the “war on terror” by arguing that “…he (God) allowed it and perhaps he allowed it to get our attention so that we don’t delude ourselves into thinking that all we have to do is put things back the way they were and life will be normal again.” Earlier this year, Colson blamed “illegal immigration” on abortion stating that “reason we must allow millions of illegal aliens in to fill these jobs is because we have murdered a generation that would otherwise be filling them: 40 million sacrificed since 1973 to the god of self-fulfillment.” Colson frequently links disparate issues such as abortion and immigration, routinely making assertions that link topics such as terrorism and gay marriage or terrorism and the United States’ alleged “moral decadence.”
Colson has been a regular advisor to President George W. Bush and Bush has frequently cited Colson’s work as an example of a successful faith-based initiative (Scahill, Blackwater, Nation Books, 2007, p. 18).
Colson was the first person sentenced in the Watergate scandal after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice in an investigation of the break-in to Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsbergs psychiatrist. Colson also allegedly had a role in trying to hire Teamsters to beat up antiwar demonstrators and in plotting to firebomb the Brookings Institution (Scahill, 18).
Support from the Religious Right in West Michigan
Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries has received support from the Religious Right in West Michigan. Colson described Blackwater USA founder and Holland native Erik Prince as my friend at a speech at Calvin College in 2002, while Colson received the “Faith & Freedom Award” by Grand Rapids’ Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. At the Acton dinner, Colson said “Islam has a monolithic worldview, which sees just one thing: the destruction of infidels and the recovery of territories they’ve lost” further stating (Scahill, p. 18-19):
“We’re in a hundred-year war and it’s time to sober up, and Christians understand it because we understand our history and we understand what makes the religious mind tick, and secular America doesn’t get it.”
Prison Fellowship Ministries has been funded by the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation, the DeWitt Families Conduit Foundation, the Cook Charitable Foundation, and the Freiheit Foundation.