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WORLDS AWAY FROM WATERGATE : Ex-White House Counsel Colson Resists a Call to Power While Analyzing Church and State

October 28, 1987|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | Times Staff Writer

The question of Armageddon came up just as Charles Colson was about to step into one of those elevators that glide in glass cylinders along the outside of the Bonaventure Hotel.

The former special counsel to the Nixon White House, Watergate felon, ex-con, "born-again" Christian and reluctant candidate to lead the PTL evangelical empire murmured that he isn't crazy about outside elevators and calmly joked that he hoped neither Armageddon nor an earthquake came while he was in one.

"I do believe in Armageddon," he said as the elevator glided down. "I don't believe it's imminent. I believe it will come in God's time. I just don't want to get hung up worrying about when it will be."

Fiction's Fatal Mistake

That just happens to be the fatal mistake made by the fictional Christian fundamentalist President in Colson's new book on church and state. Colson's own religious mission, however, has him fully occupied in the here and now, and that is what he was talking about in Los Angeles--warning about power, talking about the mixing of religion and politics, describing his prison ministry and explaining why he said no to the Rev. Jerry Falwell's request that he take over the leadership of the scandal-ridden and bankrupt PTL.

"I haven't sought publicity in the Christian world," he said. "I got out of prison and felt God was calling me to a ministry in the prisons. I do generate public attention when I speak before state legislatures (for prison reform). But I've stayed out of religious politics. Falwell is in the middle of it. Jim and Tammy Bakker, Pat Robertson . . . I've stayed away. It hasn't been my calling."

It is true he has not been in the public eye. Other than his prison work, he draws little attention except when he publishes a book; "Kingdoms in Conflict," just out, is his fifth.

Given his relative obscurity, it came as a jolt to some to find his name at the top of Falwell's list.

"I guess (Falwell) thought I was the one who could reconcile all the different elements of the Christian family; I've not been associated with any one camp," Colson said, adding that he is well-known in the various camps, largely through his best-selling books. "I said no, because my calling is in the prisons."

In fact, he said no to Falwell three times, twice agreeing to think it over and pray again, he said, before Falwell accepted his refusal. The ordeal of a recent, successful operation for stomach cancer, and a subsequent desire to spend more time with his family--his wife Patty, three grown children and several grandchildren--were contributing factors, he said, but not the real reason.

"Really, I didn't have the heart for religious broadcasting. I'm not an enthusiast. I tried it out for a few days," filling in briefly for Pat Robertson on "The 700 Club" program, he said. "It wasn't my thing. . . . It's more an entertainment medium, and I don't consider myself an entertainer.

"You reach a point in life," Colson said, "where you ask yourself where you can make the greatest contribution."

Calling Robertson "an extremely able guy," he hastened to add that he is endorsing no one in the 1988 presidential race. He said he did advise Robertson to give up his ordination if he ran--something the declared Republican candidate has done.

Colson, who continues to do commentary on "The 700 Club" as a contributing editor, does not dispute that the electronic church does good. But his reservations about the medium are serious. "It's almost impossible to be on religious television and not be corrupted by the world of power," he said.

When he first appeared on "The 700 Club," he said, "I felt the old power syndrome of the White House come back over me. You know: Someone's handing you briefing papers, someone's shining your shoes. . . . Jesus Christ came to serve others, not to be served. Can you capture the essence of Christianity in front of millions?"

Colson's quiet, personable manner belies the reputation he earned working for President Nixon, when he was known as the tough, ruthless hatchet man of the White House.

Prison Ministries

These days he is eager to describe the Prison Fellowship Ministries organization that he founded, speaking with obvious sincerity about "the area that personally excites me the most--our 'angel tree program.' "

In that program, cards containing gift wishes from inmates' families are placed on Christmas trees at shopping malls or churches. Donors take a card and buy and deliver the gifts, along with a comic book rendering of the Gospel Christmas story, and offer to stay in touch.

"Without being overly maudlin," he said, "I was in the hospital undergoing surgery last year, and I could have died a happy man knowing that out of my experience, 52,000 kids know what Christmas is about."

Yet much of his modus operandi is consistent with the pre-Watergate Colson. He was known for his loyalty and self-sacrifice, and then, as now, he believed in service.

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