We sat on old wooden chairs in a cavernous hall with thick, old windows and an exposed beam ceiling. Great, pensive portraits of dead white men adorned the walls. It was the kind of room that felt like it would be cold no matter what the temperature was. Colson, who looked like the human equivalent of a very tanned shar-pei, with symmetrical wrinkles and folds of skin around his face, was returning to Brown for the first time since a 1973 speech he had given there from his lofty perch as President Nixon's general counsel. As he reached the lectern he joked that when he worked for the White House, Brown had hailed him as a conquering hero; now that he represented God, only Brown's small Christian fellowship had invited him.
Colson wasn't preaching and he wasn't delivering a rousing political message. He spoke as an academic trying to make his case to an intellectually suspicious audience. His thesis was simple. Never before in American life had the public square been so stripped of Judeo-Christian influence and so actively hostile to Christians. He wasn't arguing, he explained, for a power grab, but simply for the reclamation of the first freedom of American life, the right of religious people of all faiths to influence the political process. America faced a burgeoning cultural war. What was now at stake was the loss of religious freedom itself, and the erosion of the Judeo-Christian ethic so essential to democracy.
He traced the descent of this tradition through the Supreme Court decision banning school prayer, the campus popularity of "relativistic" French writers Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, the 1960s ethic of "do your own thing," and the resultant "spiral of easy sex and hard drugs."
"Religion in American culture has lost its cutting edge," Colson said that night. "It has become part of 'the scene.' Eighty-one percent of American adults say they are Christian, yet in terms of moral values our society today is really decadent. We have simply accommodated the culture. Whenever the church does this, it loses its vitality." Christians were supposed to be different. They were supposed to be vibrant and alive. They were supposed to be living fully in the world but were also to be different from the world and the world's standards. But that wasn't happening.
The truth was actually quite the opposite. Christians were exactly the same as the world. Christians divorced at the same rate as non-Christians, they had premarital sex at the same rate, they had just as many abortions, they hoarded their money without giving sacrificially to the poor, and always wanted more.
What America needs, Colson said, "is a restoration of religious values in public life. The shockwaves that threaten the very foundations of our culture today emanate from society's failure to understand man's need for God and Christians' failure to accurately present Christ's message of the Kingdom of God." I wrote it all down, as furiously as I could scribble. I even wrote down another quick point he made: Much of what needed to be done was actually beyond the reach of politics. Reformation, after all, wasn't the work of government. I just wouldn't remember it for years.