A speech to members of the Detroit Economic Club delivered at The Cobo Center, Detroit, Michigan
JOE LIEBERMAN WAS RIGHT
I have spent half my adult life, as I go back and calculate it now, in government, politics, and law. In fact, I spent an extra seven months in government I hadn’t planned on! Free room and board––a post-graduate course, you might say, in government––in a U.S. prison. The other half of my life I have spent in Christian service.
So what I want to do today is to give you a perspective on those two worlds: God and Caesar: How they get along or don’t get along, and whether Caesar really needs God. That is a burning question in American life today, and it has weighed heavily in this election campaign ever since Senator and vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman came here to Detroit, and said, “We need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God’s purpose.” He went on to say, “We need more place for faith in America’s public life.”
We all saw the publicity in Florida after he spoke those words here in a Detroit church. Some people were scandalized that he would make such bold statements, but not as scandalized as they would have been had it been Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell who made those statements. Maybe they weren’t as scandalized as they might have been because of the op-ed piece Eleanor Brown wrote for The New York Times afterward, that said, well, Joe Lieberman has injected religion into this election, but that’s okay because Lieberman represents the religious left! If conservatives speak out, it’s hate speech, but if it comes from the Left, no problem.
I guess it depends on whose Caesar you’re listening to. But I would ask: Was Joe Lieberman right in doing that? Of course, he was! As one who has come to know Jesus Christ, personally, my Christian faith is the central truth of my life. It’s who I am. The fact that I serve Christ and want to follow him defines who I am, and I believe this is what candidate Lieberman was saying. For someone who is an Orthodox Jew to suggest, “I plan to be quiet about my faith,” would be to betray the central truth of his life. It would be deception. When George Bush said that Jesus Christ is the most important philosopher in his life, he was simply speaking the truth. Many of us remember the time that candidate John F. Kennedy said that he wouldn’t be guided by the Catholic Church as president of the United States. He made that speech, you may recall, before a group of Baptist ministers in Houston, and he was heralded afterward as a hero.
What utter nonsense! If you are a believing Catholic, a believing Muslim, a believing Jew, or a believing Hindu, then say so! Of course you’re going to be guided by what you believe. It’s an essential part of your life, and Joe Lieberman was absolutely right to say so. I thank him for doing it, because it brought this important issue back into the public debate in American life.
Fifty-eight percent of the American people, in one recent poll, responded to Lieberman’s statement with agreement, saying, “We need more religion in American life.” For forty years, the secularists in this country have been saying, “Scrub every ounce of religious influence out of American life. Give us no prayer and no talk of God in public.” I say, nonsense!
Yet, after forty years of that, undermining our freedom of religious speech, 58 percent of the American people still believe we need more religion in public life. So, again, I ask you: Was Senator Lieberman right to say what he said? Of course he was! He didn’t say anything different than what John Adams said: “Our constitution is made only for a religious and moral people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.” He said nothing different than any of our Founding Fathers said in the formation of this nation.
I for one am grateful that Mr. Lieberman (whatever office he may hold after the mess in Florida is straightened out) said what he said and that he talked honestly and openly about his faith. Maybe we can now get rid of some red herrings. Maybe, by his opening the subject, we can begin to talk about some of the things that are of fundamental importance to how we order our common laws together.
ORDERING OUR COMMON LAWS
Politics and religion have many things in common. Aristotle said that the art of politics is how we are going to order our common laws together. The word “religion” is rooted in the Latin derivative of the word, “to bind together.” Religion is what holds us together. So religion and politics are the things that make us a society, at the very root of our culture.
We have heard, over the last several years, that you shouldn’t impose religion on people. How often have you heard that? Where did you first hear it? You probably first heard it in the 1980s, with regard to the moral majority and Falwell and Robertson. But, no. If you said that, you would be wrong. Historically, the first time this issue was raised in a political campaign was in 1860 when the slave-owners argued that Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionists ought not to be imposing their religious views on American life. Thank God, they imposed their views! Thank God they won the political process and were able to do what they did.
In Britain, when they were debating the slave trade, Lord Melbourne stood up on the floor of the parliament and said, “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life.” Thank God, religion did invade public life! And thank God, people, moved by their deepest religious convictions, believed that we should end the injustice of slavery, and that we should support the Civil Rights movement in this country.
The people who say that we are imposing our views simply do not understand how the democratic process works. The democratic process works by every one of us in this room (this is the wonderful freedom of being Americans) being able to speak about our deepest convictions in public conversation and in public discourse. And out of this comes a consensus, and people vote, and nothing is imposed on anybody until the majority votes, and it goes through our process, and the Supreme Court affirms that it is legal. Who is imposing what? Ought we not to be able to express the deepest convictions of our lives? It’s an absurd charge.
Then we hear other people say, “Well, we have this ‘wall of separation’ between Church and State.” You have heard that phrase, haven’t you—straight out of the Constitution? No! The Constitution doesn’t say that. The Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That is all the Constitution says. The wall of separation between Church and State was a remark in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Baptist congregation in Danbury, Connecticut, ten years after the Constitution was signed. He was saying that the federal government could not tell the State of Connecticut what it could do about its church.
The language of the Constitution was meant to protect the Church from public interference. But, sadly, we have turned it upside down—topsy-turvy. We’ve got it backwards. That is not what we are separating; we are not separating religion from public life, we are preventing government from placing its dead bureaucratic hands on the religious values of this nation. We had better get it straight. I think Senator Lieberman did this country a great service, because he has started a healthy dialogue in America. Isn’t it amazing that he could get away with it?
If you believe the media, most people look at religious conservatives and think of them us as “right-wing Christians.” Well, here’s a Jew and a liberal, who is saying what needs to be said, and he has gotten it out in public dialogue and even in editorials in The New York Times. And the people are accepting and discussing it. I think this may turn out to be the most significant thing that has happened in Mr. Lieberman’s political gamble, that once again we feel free to talk about the most fundamental first-principles of our lives; that is, what we believe about the Creator God who made us––even though I suspect the next president, whoever he is, may not be able to govern very much.
I am a Christian, as I’ve told you. So I am going to speak today briefly about the reason why Judeo-Christian influence—the influence of the Jews and the Christians—is so important to this country, and important to the right-ordering of our lives. I hope no one will take offense. I speak as one who, in the darkest days of Watergate, visited a friend (whose sister happens to be in the audience today), and he told me about Jesus one night on one of the darkest days of my life. I had been a nominal churchgoer; yet, I had never understood what he meant when he told me one day that he had accepted Jesus Christ and committed his life to Him.
But twenty-seven years ago, in a flood of tears, the man before you, this ex-Marine captain, the “toughest of the Nixon tough guys,” known as the White House “hatchet man,” called out to God with an honest prayer. God answered that prayer that night, and I turned my life over to Christ. My life has never been the same since. It can never be the same again. So I speak as a Christian, but I hope no one will take offense. If a Muslim were speaking here today, or a Buddhist, or a Hindu, or a Jew, they could certainly present a case for why religious values from their perspective are important in American public life.
FIVE REASONS FOR FAITH
There are five major reasons: One, I believe, is that the Judeo-Christian tradition provides a basis for ethics in American life––that is, the impulse to do good and to be good. Virtue and the impulse for virtue. I think it encourages personal and family health—in other words, “living well.” I think it encourages productivity in the workplace, something that many of you are particularly concerned with. I think it encourages and undergirds political freedom and gives us a basis for our commitment to human rights. I think it encourages compassion, not only does it move us to virtue (to be good), but it also moves us to compassion (to do good). It provides those five things.
Faith affects every single area of life. It affects education. I understand that next week you are going to be hearing Cardinal Maida speak about chartered schools—one of the wonderful things that my friend Mike Timmis (and I’m sure many of the rest of you in this room) have contributed to. You have four chartered schools now in Detroit––they’ve been started, and they are wonderful schools with a great success rate. These schools have been started because the people starting them are Christians, and they believe that our duty is to help people. That’s why we reach out to help.
Faith also affects science. Isaac Newton was a devout Christian. It affects music. Bach signed all his music with the initials “SDG,” for Soli Deo Gloria, meaning to the glory of God alone. Many of the greatest contributions in art and literature, throughout Western civilization, have been made by people moved by their love of God, desiring to do something that will bring glory to God through their work.
But let me just concentrate for a few minutes on the five points that I think are so central as to how we order our lives together.
First, faith encourages virtue. Dostoevsky asked the great question in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov: “Can man be good without God?” He, of course, answered that question “No.” Can a person ever be good without God? Of course. Atheists jump on hand grenades in foxholes. But can they be consistently good and live virtuous lives without belief in some ultimate source of values? I would submit they cannot. It’s even more complicated in today’s relativistic culture where 72 percent of Americans say, “There is no such thing as absolute truth.” You can tell school children to do something because it’s right, and they ask, “Says who?” (The great barroom response: “Says who”!) If we can’t decide on some value system, some barometer of truth that we can believe in, then how are we going to know what’s right?
In 1939, as war clouds hovered over Europe, as the Nazis were beginning their march across the continent, a man named Louis Finkelstein at the Jewish Seminary in New York (a wonderful man, by the way) decided it was time to bring the very best minds in America together to develop what he called a “universal code of ethics.” So he convened something he called “The Conference on Science, Technology, and Philosophy.” The purpose was to give a universal basis of ethics in order to fortify democracy for the war he could see coming. He got seventy-nine of the leading scholars in America, including Albert Einstein, and they gathered in New York. The New York Times trumpeted the event as a “universal intellectual declaration of independence.” It was on the front page of the newspaper.
The proceedings were printed in full in The New York Times. Participants gathered at the seminary in Riverside Heights in New York, all the best minds in America to develop a code of ethics to fortify democracy against what would happen in the Great War that was just about to begin. Well, they couldn’t get anywhere at the first meeting. Sidney Hook and Mortimer Adler got into a great debate over the way in which they would proceed. So they announced the second meeting the next year. They met a second time. The New York Times trumpeted it once again. They said, this time, surely, they would find a universal code of ethics. They met every year for the next twenty years and finally disbanded in 196l, saying, “It is impossible to agree on a set of moral values that we can all share.” You see, if there isn’t some transcendent truth, which is what the Judeo-Christian tradition has always brought to bear in American life—if there isn’t that, then we do not know what is right.
But the tougher question is, even if you know what is right, can you do it? There’s a wonderful scene in Tolstoy’s classic book, War and Peace, in which Pierre, the hapless character through whom the whole story is told, is leaning against the wall. He is in the middle of the battle, and he has done everything wrong in his life. Pierre looks up toward heaven, and he says, “Why is it that I know what is right and do what is wrong?” Those of you who read your Bibles will know that the answer to Pierre’s question is found in Romans chapter seven. Human nature! It is the perverse nature of human beings. How do you get over this?
THE IMPULSE FOR VIRTUE
You know, I grew up in the Depression years, and my dad was a wonderful human being. He was going to law school at nights and working hard, making just $20.00 a week. He only had an hour for me on Sunday afternoons because he was trying to keep the family alive. But he would say to me, “Chuck, always tell the truth.” I grew up with a strict, Puritan code of ethics. I went into politics because I thought the other side in Massachusetts (the Democrats) were dishonest, and, as a Republican, I wanted to go in and clean things up. I wanted to see honesty in government. I had the most rigid, self-righteous set of ethical values you can imagine.
I studied political philosophy at Brown University, and I studied the “categorical imperative,” the ethical system introduced by Immanuel Kant that embodied the moral ideals of Enlightenment—that we can be good without God. So I left my law firm where I was making a very good income and went to the White House, and I put my assets in a blind trust. [I will tell you how to make a small fortune. Take a relatively good fortune and put it in a blind trust, and soon you will have a small fortune.] It cost me a lot of money to do it! I wouldn’t even see former clients when I was in the White House. If somebody sent me a bottle of whisky or a box of candy, or a nice gift at Christmas time, I would give those things to the drivers of my limousine. I wouldn’t keep any of them.
I, Chuck Colson, would never be corrupted! Yet, I went to prison. What went wrong? Every human being has an infinite capacity for self-rationalization. If there is not a transcendent power that can grip your heart, you’re going to fail. You may still fail even with that transcendent power, but with faith you’ve got something that will get you back up. This is what I discovered. C. S. Lewis wrote about this in a wonderful essay called “Men Without Chests,” in which he says that the passions of the stomach (using the body analogy) are irresistible by mere reasoning of the brain. Apart from the will, informed by the spirit, we give in to our animal natures. Apart from the transformation wrought by faith in Jesus Christ, Lewis wrote, you are absolutely incapable of doing what is right, even if you know what is right. Inevitably, you will talk yourself into doing what is wrong. Try it! That’s the way it happens.
The impulse for virtue comes from people who know what is right because they follow a transcendent Judeo-Christian tradition of right and wrong—that is, the law and the classic virtues that have been handed down from ancient times—along with the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity. With those standards of life, and with a heart that has been converted, we have the capacity to do and to be good.
Second, faith encourages personal and family health. A good friend of mine, a psychiatrist by the name of David Larson, at the National Institute of Health Care Research, set out (in a profession which has decidedly few Christians) to show why religion is good for you—why the faith factor is good. In his twenty years of empirical research, he discovered the most amazing things. First of all, I should mention that he found that prisoners who participate in the faith-based programs developed by Prison Fellowship during incarceration are much less likely to return to crime upon release. In fact, participation in these programs can cut the recidivism rate among prisoners from 41 percent down to 14 percent––that is, one third of the normal rate. But he also discovered that people have less stress, fewer heart attacks, and greater enjoyment of life if they have a religious core to their life. He discovered that everything about a person’s life is affected by religious faith: there are fewer suicides, few cases of alcoholism, and people live happier and more fulfilled lives. He even found that the sex life of married Christian couples is better than the sex life of secular couples. How is that for an evangelistic tool? “Come to Jesus, you will be saved, and you will have a better sex life in the process!”
Faith touches every aspect of life! We already know that Christian faith is an imperative in getting people off of drugs and alcohol. My friend Joe Williams, who is here today, runs TOPS, a wonderful program that reaches out to people coming out of prison. Joe can tell you. He has a 90 percent success rate taking guys out of prison, here in the inner-city, and getting them back on their feet. Why? Because the Christian basis of the program gives them something to hope for, something to live for, and a reason to stay clean. That’s what gets them out of the rut.
I was at a press conference a couple of years ago in Washington with Joseph Califano, the former Secretary of Health and Human Services under Jimmy Carter—a man who is as active in the Democratic Party as I was in the Republican Party. The press conference was on drugs and alcohol addiction and its impact on American life. In the middle of that conference Mr. Califano was talking to reporters and he said, “See that man?” and he pointed to me. “Chuck Colson is working in the prisons, and I have to tell you, he has the only answer to drug and alcohol addiction.” He went on to say, “I’ve been working for years now at the National Council, and religion is the only thing I know of that can successfully get people off drugs. Every time I find somebody who has succeeded in getting off drugs or alcohol, I find out that it’s their religious faith that got them out of it.”
The classic Middletown study that most of you have heard of offers some very impressive evidence. Eighty-four percent of people with strong, intact families, for example, say that the reason is because of their religious convictions and their commitment as a couple. There is a ministry called “Marriage Savers.” Another friend of mine, a journalist named Mike McManus, decided to get busy and do something about saving marriages. So he went out and started making covenants with churches all across the country. The program is aimed at preparing people for the covenant of marriage, and the churches would agree to provide pre-marital counseling for their members, and they would provide support for couples at various stages in their lives, and by doing this, they’ve been able to cut the divorce rate in those communities by as much as 40 percent.
This is important because, as I work in prisons around the country, I have come to see that it’s the plague of broken families that has led to the avalanche of kids in the streets. It’s the lack of Christian faith or any sort of moral training during the morally formative years that has led to the overwhelming growth of juvenile crime. And we will stop it only with this one answer: the moral answer. You are not going to stop crime with more prisons, more institutions, or more rehabilitation programs. Only religious faith that changes hearts can do it.
The third reason faith is so important is because it encourages productivity. We hear it referred to as the “Protestant work ethic.” One of the great contributions of Western civilization is what is known today as the work ethic—the idea that we can defer gratification, the idea that we do our work to the glory of God. Martin Luther said it doesn’t make any difference whether you’re preaching in a pulpit or scrubbing floors, so long as you do whatever you do to the glory of God. For centuries, people really believed that, and vocational work became part of their discipleship. Those values, born during the Reformation, then spread to America, and without them we would not have the high levels of productivity we have in this country today.
The great economist and theologian, Michael Novak, wrote a book called, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, in which he argues the case. I think it’s a landmark book of modern times. It is being read now and taught all around the world, particularly in countries that were once behind the iron curtain. They’re learning the American secret. Three basic elements: Political freedom, economic freedom, and moral truth. Political freedoms, Novak says, and economic freedoms cannot be sustained without moral truth. It’s a three-legged stool. Take away any one of those three legs, and the stool can no longer stand.
Fourth, faith encourages political freedom and human rights. The whole idea of Western liberal democracy is a Christian notion. During the Reformation, the great reformer, John Calvin, argued that government had to be limited for the good of society. It was a radical concept that broke, once and for all, “the divine rule of kings.” Samuel Rutherford, a seventeenth-century Scottish cleric, wrote a book called Lex Rex, which means, in Latin, “The Law is King.” In it, he said that the king is not the law; rather, even the king is subject to the laws. The whole nature of today republican form of government (small r) grew out of that understanding, which was at root a Christian movement. This is a moral and logical principle, and if you take that away, you can no longer guarantee our political freedoms.
FAITH IN ACTION
Just think of the various ways that biblical truth impacts our lives. One of our ministries at Prison Fellowship is dedicated to what we call restorative justice: this is an eminently biblical principle. Rather than just seeking retribution for crime, and rather than just building more prisons, restorative justice holds that we should be working to restore those who have committed crimes people back into their communities as changed and productive members of society. We should be able to work with the victims of crime. We should be able to restore what the ancient Jews called the “shalom” of the community.
It is a magnificent concept built around restitution––making it right with the victim and those who have been offended. I go to state legislatures all over America and speak about restitution. I say, “Pay back the victims. Instead of locking up non-violent offenders in cells that cost the taxpayers $30,000 a year, make them work and pay back their victims.” I love it when the legislators come up to me afterwards and say, “That’s such a great idea, Mr. Colson. Where did it come from?” And I say, “Have you got a Bible at home? Well, dust it off! It’s a biblical answer—straight out of the earliest times.” This was the first law handed down by Moses to the Jews. It has been carried on for centuries through the biblical traditions.
How tragic that we have forgotten so much about our heritage. The Bible has answers for every area of life! Human rights. My heavens! What other nation has ever taken as its creed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What an extraordinary statement! It’s revolutionary. But it is profoundly Christian, and deeply consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition it’s premised upon.
When I was in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, I was ready to give my life up for my country, not because I liked where I lived or anything else, but because of that creed. I like to be part of a country where “All men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” If you look through history, whether it was William Wilberforce, who rose up on the moment of the great debate over the slave trade and led the abolitionist movement, or whether it was Martin Luther King, who wrote his “Letters from the Birmingham Jail,” strictly based on Scripture and an understanding of God’s transcendent law, or whether you look back at the collapse of the Iron Curtain, you will see the impact of faith in action. I have met with many of those heroes—like Father Vaclav Maly in Czechoslovakia, who led the freedom campaign. They did it! The Star of David and the Cross of Christ have been a great scandal to tyrants for centuries, because we worship a King who is above the kings of this world. Yet, that is the very basis of our human rights.
Well, the fifth and final reason I would offer for the importance of faith is that it encourages compassion. Not only to be good, to be virtuous, but to do good, to care about other people. I was in Philadelphia recently for a program we have, which was a year-around Angel Tree program. With Angel Tree we buy Christmas gifts for the children of inmates. We will deliver gifts to the homes of some 550,000 kids this year. It is a wonderful ministry, and now we’re turning it into a year-around program. We will be sending kids to camp, and mentoring them during the week. I’m convinced it’s the only answer to today’s juvenile crime problem. But after our meeting was over, an African-American woman came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder, and she said, “Mr. Colson, thank you for taking my son to camp last summer. At camp he was saved. Now he is out in the streets preaching to the gangs!”
I had to see that young fellow, so they brought him over. He was such a handsome young lad, 14 years old, and he just had a light in his eyes. He lives in Camden, New Jersey, in the projects, in one of the most desperate inner-city areas in America. This youngster proudly told me how he has been sharing his Bible with the kids in the ghetto. This is what happens. If you want you clean up the inner cities, this is what it will take. Don’t scrub religion from American public life. Don’t purge our streets of faith and moral virtue. Instead, you had better welcome it, because it’s the only answer to solving the most fundamental problems we face as a nation and a people.
A TIME FOR RENEWAL
We run a prison in Texas. It is one of the first Christian prisons in America. In fact, we now run three of them. We have done it in South America for many years now, it’s a revolutionary program. We take inmates who come into the prisons, and they start in the morning with Bible study. They go to breakfast, and afterward they go for life-training classes. Then they go to their various work programs. At 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon they have their evening meal, and then from 4:00 o’clock until 10:00 they have devotional services, worship services, testimony times, and baptisms. They have a great time until 10:00 o’clock, and there’s no TV. There are two hundred inmates in that prison, and they mean business. They’re serious. The men go through a full 24-month program: 18 months in the prison and 6 months being mentored on the outside. Every man who gets out has a mentor assigned to him. Of the 68 men who have gotten out of this prison so far––and they’re all multiple offenders with prior convictions—only 3 are back in custody. That’s the power of faith. That’s the power of a transformed heart.
I believe this is a remarkable time in American history. I believe that, far more important than what happens in the election, is what happens to people when they answer the fundamental question “How Now Shall We Live?” which is why I titled my latest book with that question. How do we really want to live? What values do we want to live by. That is far more important than who we want to see in the White House. If we answer that question right––and I think we are on the verge of doing so––then we will see a great renewal of faith in this country.
In the last half century we have gone through what one scholar calls the modernist impasse. For those of you educated during the 1960s, you will recall that we were told that there is no God, that we can do anything we want, that we could have free sex and cheap drugs, and just live for the moment, and do our own thing. The kids believed that. They let their hair grow long and put on their tie-died jeans, and they thought it was all over in the sixties. But it wasn’t. Life went on, and they discovered they needed other things, so they put on their pinstriped suits and went off to New York and became lawyers and stock brokers. But the value system of the sixties infected American life, and deep down they still believed what they had been taught about the meaninglessness of life.
Unfortunately, this kind of thinking merely leads to what I call “cultural nihilism.” It leads to moral decay, to the breakdown of standards, and to moral anarchy. Ultimately, if we try to live by those values we find that we cannot live together as people. We’re turned inward. And sooner or later we must see that Woodstock in 1969 led us directly and inevitably to Columbine in 1999. The idea that we could “Do your own thing” led to social and moral chaos.
At long last, I think the American people have come to the point where they are saying, “This hedonistic, selfish, self-centered, and narcissistic way of life no longer works.” One recent poll shows that 84 percent of conservatives and 33 percent of liberals now say that restoring traditional values is the number one priority in America. Fully 70-some percent of people polled in the 2000 political campaign said we’ve got to do something to get this country back on the right track. When asked what it was, they said, “We’ve got to restore America’s moral values.”
The American people are hungry for moral truth––far more than they’re hungry for a fix to their Social Security problems. I think they want eternal security, not Social Security. They want something with deeper meaning, and that’s why I can say that this is a great time of hope. To Joe Lieberman, whatever office he eventually holds, I say “Thank you for raising this issue.” He raised it first in Detroit, and it is has echoed across the nation, so that people are once again talking about first things—and the most important thing, the state of the heart, and what we will believe.