WASHINGTON, May 14 (UPI)--Three decades ago, Chuck Colson was President Richard M. Nixon's special counsel--and thus one of the most powerful men in Washington. He ended up in federal penitentiary for seven months as one of the Watergate felons.

"Today, Colson is once again a powerful man in Washington, even though he lives in Florida," says Diane Knippers, President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

But nowadays this Boston-born lawyer's power is of a different nature. Perhaps more than anybody else, this former Marine Corps captain represents a worldview President George W. Bush has brought into the White House -- view of religion taking its place in the public square.

Colson, 67, founder and chairman of the enormously successful Prison Fellowship, is in Washington "at least once every two weeks," he told United Press International. Once in a while he sees Bush, whom he admires as "a very decent and down-to-earth man who means what he says."

More often he meets with John J. DiIulio Jr., who heads the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The two men have worked together for quite some time. Both have been heavily involved in a burgeoning ecumenical endeavor called Evangelicals and Catholics Together, Colson as a Protestant, DiIulio as Roman Catholic.

At first, ECT strove to cooperate on ethical issues, such as abortion, homosexuality and other points that are contrary to the Biblical understanding of man's comportment. "Now, however, we are coming closer on doctrine as well," Colson said.

Colson's current influence in Washington hails from many sources: Theologians from various denominations admire both the faith he acquired in prison and his theological acumen; politicians, journalists and intellectuals marvel at his incredible output -- 39 books, daily columns, and nationally syndicated radio broadcasts, all the fruit of his jailhouse conversion in 1973.

But chiefly, of course, he has won international respect for his unique Prison Fellowship with an army of more than 50,000 volunteers. Its most recent accomplishment is "a wonderful revival in Georgia and Arizona" jailhouses, according to Colson.

"The largest mission field in America is behind bars," reads the slogan of this national prison evangelism, discipleship and post-release program, in which Colson's ministry cooperates with the Promise Keepers and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

"It will reach every one of the nation's 2 million prisoners within five years," spokeswoman Jennifer Sheran told UPI Monday.

When Colson was incarcerated in 1973, there were no more than 224,000 men and women behind bars.

The project has three stages, according to Sheran. The first consists of entertainment programs during which "introductory books explaining the Gospel in a simple way are distributed."

"They contain cards on which prisoners can commit their lives to Christ," Sheran added. "Amazingly, 7,429 of these cards have been returned to us; almost half of the signatories informed us that theirs was a first-time decision for Christ.

"In Georgia, we received 8,500 cards, including 2,000 with first-time commitments."

These numbers prompted Colson to speak of a revival that may ultimately signal "an awakening, though this is of course not in our hands but depends entirely on the Holy Spirit."

The second phase of this project consists of mentoring, Bible studies and family counseling conducted by local volunteers. "Some prisoners even earn degrees on theology," Jennifer Sheran said.

The third phase is an after-care program, where the just-released prisoners are matched up with mentors, who help them avoid the criminal milieu that might send the former felons straight back to jail.

The large-scale prevention of recidivism is one of Colson's most celebrated accomplishments. It is also an undertaking that established a special bond between him and George W. Bush under whose governorship Colson had started the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, which the Wall Street Journal labeled a Bible Boot Camp.

In this program, inmates in the final stages of their incarceration commit themselves to a 16-hours a day, seven-days-a-week religious curriculum whose merriest moments occur when they sing "Amazing Grace."

Small wonder that Bush, who as governor has authorized InnerChange in Texas, is one of Colson's most fervent admirers: In Texas where 41 percent of all former inmates will be behind bars again before long, a mere 5 percent of the InnerChange graduates have returned to jail so far.

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