Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.
(CNN) -- Chuck Colson was a man in full. The former White House special counsel and Watergate accomplice turned born-again Christian and prison evangelist, reminded us all, through his muscular Christianity and ever-present Marine training, that every life is worth saving, that no man should be left behind.
He fought tirelessly on behalf of the forgotten and condemned. He defended the defenseless.
In his passing on April 21 at the age of 80, we remember one of America's premier cultural ambassadors. Through his Prison Fellowship ministry, Angel Tree program, weekly radio broadcasts, books, and sermons, Colson touched countless lives, from the most innocent to those on death row.
He pleaded guilty in 1974 to obstruction of justice in the Nixon White House Watergate scandal and served seven months in prison. But before he went to prison, he underwent a dramatic conversion and became a born-again Christian. Colson emerged from prison a man forever transformed.
Last year, on one of his final public speaking tours, Colson summarized his ongoing mission for the past 40 years -- addressing the root causes of the cultural problems threatening our society.
"I discovered early on that the reasons the prisons were being filled wasn't all the sociological theories about crime that we hear generally, it was the... lack of moral training during the morally formative years," Colson explained. "We are raising a generation that lacks male role models. The family has broken down. These kids aren't learning character."
Colson understood that the family is the knot that holds the fabric of civilization together. If the family unravels, then so does society -- economically, socially, and morally. And now, it appears we may be headed that way. Today, more than half of births to American women under 30 happen outside marriage. The out-of-wedlock birth rate in the United States has passed 40% and more than 70% of all births to black women are outside marriage.
Children today are the product of fewer successful marriages than perhaps ever before. With high unemployment rates, children are increasingly less likely to see a father or mother getting up and going to work in the morning. Less than half of the American population attends church on a weekly basis. The founding virtues that made this country so successful -- hard work, fidelity and faith -- are in diminishing supply.
These virtues can't be taught in ethics classes or pop culture movies, but rather, they must be learned through example, particularly that of mentors and role models. Our children, boys in particular, are drawn to the strongest and loudest forces around them. If positive influences, like parents, teachers, and coaches, are missing, children will gravitate to something inferior, like drugs or gangs.
Colson would often illustrate this with stories of convicts leaving prison only to be handed $100 by the guards and told, "See you again in a couple weeks." For the overwhelming majority, it was true. They returned home to the same gang they left, the same crimes they committed before, and they ended up back in prison again several weeks later.
Colson understood the solution to these problems wasn't political or economical, but cultural. On March 30, Colson gave a speech at the Wilberforce Weekend Conference in northern Virginia. It was the last public speech he would ever give. In it he remarked, "Politics is nothing but an expression of culture ... so if things are bad, don't think it's going to be solved by an election. It's going to be solved by us."
All great change starts from the bottom up -- from the dinner table to the football field to the prisons. If you want less poverty, less crime and less social breakdown, you need stronger families, stronger churches, and stronger communities. Chuck Colson dedicated himself to this cause with unparalleled fervor and compassion. He will be sorely missed.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.