Perry casts himself as spiritual, says his life is shaped by faith

September 14, 2011

Texas Gov. Rick Perry is a man of faith, and one of the big questions about him has been whether he will seek the presidency more as an evangelist or as a job creator.

On the debate stage, Perry has done the latter. But he demonstrated Wednesday that he will not shy away from cloaking his candidacy in his Christianity, delivering an address here at the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University that presented his life in deeply spiritual terms and cast his political aspirations as destiny.

In perhaps his most reflective and personal remarks as a Republican presidential candidate, Perry never once said the word he utters just about everywhere else: “jobs.” His 20-minute speech was shorn of policy prescriptions and denouncements of President Obama.

Instead, the evangelical Christian governor spoke the language of the movement with ease. He talked about the many nights in his 20s he spent pondering his purpose, “wondering what to do with this one life among the billions that were on the planet,” but knowing that God’s answers would be revealed to him in due time.

Perry mused about his personal failings: not realizing his dream of becoming a veterinarian because he flunked organic chemistry, being ordered to do push-ups as a college cadet when his superiors in morning inspections discovered insufficiently shined shoes, straying from his faith and being “lost” as a young Air Force pilot overseas.

“He who knows the number of drops in the ocean, he counts the sands in the desert, he knows you by name. . . . He doesn’t require perfect people to execute his perfect plan,” Perry said before an estimated 13,000 students and faculty members who filled the basketball arena here for their thrice-weekly convocation.

Then, invoking Moses and David of Scripture, he added: “God uses broken people to reach a broken world. The mistakes of yesterday say nothing about the possibilities of tomorrow.”

Recent past presidents spoke comfortably about their faith, including George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Bush shared a narrative of his religious conversion — that he went on a walk with the Rev. Billy Graham, joined a Bible study group and overcame his alcoholism.

“Rick Perry’s a more overt, less subtle guy than George W. Bush, and he is going to be more overt in his policy statements and his statements about his faith,” said Richard Land, a longtime leader of the Southern Baptist Convention who has spoken with Perry about his faith. “He talks about his faith in terms that evangelicals will find completely identifiable.”

Before he began his campaign in August, Perry drew 30,000 people to a revival prayer session at a Houston stadium. Behind the scenes, he has been courting evangelical leaders, including at a recent retreat on a remote Texas ranch. But it remained unclear how directly he would discuss his evangelism in public.

He answered that question on Wednesday.

“This is one of his early attempts to say: ‘This is who I am,’ ” said Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

“It’s like he had somebody like Rick Warren helping him write,” he added. Warren’s book “The Purpose Driven Life,” Cromartie said, “is about how there’s a plan for everybody. That’s what Perry’s trying to say, that God has a plan for him, and it’s a really big one — to be the next president of the United States.”

A lifelong Methodist, Perry regularly attends Lake Hills Church, a relatively new and modern evangelical megachurch in Austin, where the Rev. Mac Richard incorporates live music, movies and drama in his services.

Perry’s advisers say he neither wears his faith on his sleeve nor covers it up. He usually prays before meals and, as governor, has spoken at prayer services and has issued executive orders to pray for rain.

“You wouldn’t necessarily notice it on a daily basis, but he is not at all self-conscious or shy about talking about faith or displaying it when he feels like it’s called for,” said Ray Sullivan, Perry’s communications director. “It is just who he is.”

William Martin, a professor at Rice University who studies religious conservatives, has questioned the compassion of Perry’s health-care and socioeconomic record.

“I looked at his policies, and they didn’t seem to be something that would flow from a heart full of Christian love, so I was thinking he had found religion conveniently,” Martin said. “But as best I can tell, it seems to be a long-standing conviction of his.”

Several other Republican presidential candidates also speak openly about how their faith guides their public service, including Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), who is scheduled to speak at Liberty University later this month. Jerry Falwell Jr., the college’s chancellor, said she would be the fifth of the eight top GOP hopefuls to visit the campus.

Falwell said he would not endorse a candidate in the race, but he gave Perry a particularly enthusiastic introduction, calling him “one of the most pro-life governors in American history” and likening him to Reagan.

Absent from the list of those who’ve made a pilgrimage here is Perry’s top rival for the nomination, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has rarely, if ever, publicly discussed his Mormon faith during his current campaign.

With his speech here, Perry drew one of his sharpest contrasts with Romney, as well as former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. The contrast was not only over religion — Huntsman, too, is Mormon — but also over their backgrounds. Romney and Huntsman grew up in privileged families, but Perry spoke at length about his more humble origins.

Perry said the only world he knew while growing up was “that little place called Paint Creek.” The closest post office to his home was 16 miles away, he said, and there were only two places of worship nearby: “a Methodist church and a Baptist church — your choice.”

The only exposure he had to someplace else, he said, came in 1964, when he traveled to the East Coast for the National Boy Scout Jamboree.

“For me, indoor plumbing was a bit of a luxury until I was about 5 years old,” Perry said. “And I didn’t worry about the latest fashions; my mother sewed most of my clothes. I didn’t know that we weren’t wealthy in a material sense. I knew that we were rich in a lot of things that really mattered — in a spiritual way.”

Perry said he turned to God not because he wanted to but because “I had nowhere else to turn. I was 27. I had been an officer in the United States Air Force, commanding a fairly substantial piece of sophisticated equipment, telling men and women what to do, but I was lost — spiritually and emotionally. And I didn’t know how to fix it.”

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