Professor Greenberg regrets

A month ago the Washington Post Book World published Professor David Greenberg’s false and defamatory statements regarding Chuck Colson in the course of Greenberg’s review of Jonathan Aitken’s new biography of Colson (Charles W. Colson: A Life Redeemed). I wrote about Greenberg’s review in “Wielding the hatchet.” In his review, Greenberg asserted that, according to the book, “grants from Bush’s faith-based initiative now fill Colson’s coffers.” Greenberg accordingly portrayed Colson as a pious phony: “In this context, it seems, ‘redemption’ means cashing in.”

Had Greenberg read the book under review? I seriously doubt it. The truth, scrupulously laid out at several points in Aitken’s book, is that Colson has taken great pains to avoid profiting personally from the ministry that he founded in 1976. He has donated all speaking fees, award money, and book royalties earned on his many best-selling books to the ministry. Colson’s first book — Born Again — has by itself sold over three million copies. The money Colson has contributed to the ministry dwarfs the modest salary he has drawn from it since he began taking a salary in 1980. These facts are all in the book and I have confirmed them with Colson, with Mark Earley, the president of the Prison Fellowship Ministries, and with Aitken himself. Aitken provides Colson’s 2005 PFM salary and average annual PFM contributions, for example, at pages 299-300 of the book.

Instead of providing a fair account or critique of Aitken’s book, Greenberg used his review to wage an ideological attack on Colson for allegedly contributing to the erosion of the wall between church and state:

Aitken dwells…on how Colson has “redeemed” himself as the head of Prison Fellowship, an organization he founded to convert prisoners to evangelical Christianity. But about the body’s controversial mission (subjecting a literally captive audience to extreme religious proselytizing) Aitken shows no skepticism — unsurprisingly, perhaps, since he himself now sits on the board of Prison Fellowship International. Nor does Aitken discuss the irony that Colson has gained a national platform less because of his prison work than because of his criminality; while many religious activists with clean records toil away unsolicited by the media, Colson wins attention because op-ed editors and television bookers know that his Watergate infamy will reliably generate buzz.

Let us pause here to note that Greenberg’s gibe about the “captive audience” is misplaced. While the Prison Fellowship Ministries serves prisoners, their participation in PFM activities is of course voluntary. Greenberg’s weird gibe is akin to attacking Johnny Cash for playing to a captive audience at Folsom Prison — unless one is offended by Christianity but not by country music. Greenberg’s review continues:

Rebutting those who decry Colson’s religiosity as a public relations ploy, Aitken insists that his subject’s faith is genuine and deep. I tend to agree. But so what? Aitken never tackles the key issue — whether Colson’s religiously based work in fact offers redemption, either for the prisoners or for Colson. The devout, after all, behave no more morally than anyone else, and as it turns out, Colson’s behavior hasn’t entirely changed.

How does Greenberg know that the devout behave no more morally than anyone else? Greenberg’s view of “the devout” appears to constitute, well, an article of faith, not an empirical assertion. And how would Greenberg have Aitken measure Colson’s redemption? By looking into his soul?

I assume Greenberg is using the term “redemption” metaphorically, to raise the question whether Colson’s missionary work is sincere. About half of Aitken’s book — the half Greenberg appears to have skipped — is devoted to Colson’s conversion experience and subsequent good works. If one judges Colson’s “redemption” by a view of his good works, or takes his good works as a reflection of his soul, Aitken’s book presents overwhelming evidence of Colson’s “redemption.” Greenberg then comes to the nub of his obsession:

Consider the issue of church-state separation. Under Nixon, Colson tried to lure working-class Catholic Democrats to the Republican Party by funneling federal funds to parochial schools. Little came of the effort, partly because Nixon administration officials considered the constitutional barriers too high. Today, however, President Bush doles out taxpayer monies to groups performing Christian social work under a plan Colson has advocated. While Colson’s motives might be less cynical now than they were under Nixon, the project of eroding the church-state wall is essentially the same. And while Colson’s current schemes surely don’t merit him more jail time, they hardly suggest a meaningfully changed man. Indeed, in the book’s final pages, Aitken fleetingly mentions that grants from Bush’s faith-based initiative now fill Colson’s coffers. In this context, it seems, “redemption” means cashing in.

This was the passage that I addressed in the Standard column linked above. In today’s Book World, the Post publishes Mark Earley’s letter on this passage:

David Greenberg’s review (Book World, Sept. 4) of Jonathan Aitken’s biography of Chuck Colson contains a serious error that The Washington Post should correct.

Greenberg incorrectly asserts that Aitken’s book “mentions that grants from Bush’s faith-based initiative now fill Colson’s coffers.” First, Aitken’s book says no such thing. Second, as president of Prison Fellowship, I am intimately aware of the ministry’s finances and can say that neither Prison Fellowship nor Chuck Colson have ever received federal funds of any kind.

This is a particularly egregious charge in light of the fact that for 30 years, Chuck Colson has contributed all of his book royalties, speaking fees and even the $1 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion to the ministry of Prison Fellowship. One of the reasons he does this is so no one could question his commitment to Christ.

Clearly Greenberg has issues with Colson and the ministry of Prison Fellowship. But to say that Colson is “cashing in” is false and unfair. I would expect better from The Post.

Prison Fellowship

Greenberg replies:

Pages 411-412 of Jonathan Aitken’s Charles W. Colson , along with many news reports, make clear that Colson’s involvement with George W. Bush’s “faith-based” program in Texas inspired the president’s current policies at the federal level.

Earley is correct that the book doesn’t claim Colson’s groups take federal funds, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. I took care not to assert, contrary to Earley’s letter, that Prison Fellowship receives “federal funds” — merely to quip that Colson’s “coffers” have received money from faith-based initiatives.

Greenberg cannot even give an honest account of his own words. What he wrote was that “grants from from President Bush’s faith-based intitiative now fill Colson’s coffers.” Wouldn’t grants from “Bush’s faith-based initiative” be federal funds? What is Greenberg talking about? Greenberg continues:

On rereading, I can see why Earley interpreted my language as he did, and I regret that I wasn’t more careful and precise in my wording. My phrase “cashing in” was meant as a lighthearted pun on the meaning of “redemption,” and I regret that in my glibness I offended Earley.

The humor is thin and the pun is lame, but the statement unambiguously imputes self-aggrandizement and hypocrisy to Colson, an imputation for which Greenberg has not one iota of evidence. So Greenberg returns to his obsession:

The real question isn’t one of taking “federal” money but rather of government’s entanglement with religion. News accounts have reported that Colson’s outfits have financially benefited, directly or indirectly, from state programs, including in Texas under Bush. In Iowa, a Colson group’s receipt of taxpayer funds occasioned a lawsuit. Hence, my larger point stands.

To Greenberg, the “smaller point” is that his imputation of Gantryite fraudulence to Colson both falsely portrayed the book under review and, more importantly, the facts at issue.

Contrary to the weasel words of Greenberg’s reply, the problem is not the offense taken by Earley at Greenberg’s words. The problem is Greenberg’s error in falsely defaming Colson and his ministry. In his inability to see either the “real question” or the “point,” Professor Greenberg has revealed himself to be, not to put too fine a point on it, a cretin.


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