Evangelicals are a key constituency for Republicans, and a Texas evangelical running for president seems a likely favorite. Rick Perry’s appearance last week at the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, confirmed the Texas governor’s ease when speaking about his “faith journey” to fellow evangelicals.
“I wasn’t one of those people who knew at the age of 12 that he wanted to be doctor, a lawyer, or for that matter a governor or a president,” Perry told over 10,000 students and faculty at Liberty, which touts itself the world’s largest Christian university. “I spent many a night pondering my purpose, talking to God, wondering what to do with this one life… what I learned as I wrestled with God was I didn’t have to have all the answers, that would be revealed to me in due time, and that I needed to trust Him.”
Perry recounted having been “lost spiritually emotionally” at age 27 while a U.S. Air Force officer. He turned to God not “because I wanted to — it was because I had nowhere else to turn.”
“As spiritual beings we are meant to live in relationship with our Creator and with one another — and the happiest moments I’ve ever experienced are when I am in communion with God and in community with others,” Perry told the receptive students. He reassured his audience of God’s plan for them. “He knows you by name; you’re never alone, even when you feel like it, and He doesn’t require perfect people to execute his perfect plan,” he observed. “God uses broken people to reach a broken world. The mistakes of yesterday say nothing about the possibilities of tomorrow.” And he encouraged them to become politically active: “You have the right like every American to speak your mind, you have the right to insist on change, to tell the people in power that you will not have your inheritance spent.… Your voice matters; use it. This country is your country as well.”
In what was more an inspirational pep talk than direct political plea, Perry surmised: “America is going to be guided by some set of values. The question is going to be whose values.” He prefers “those Christians values this country was based upon.” Mentioning the “Arab Spring,” he implored that America “must do as Ronald Reagan did at the apex of the Cold War, which is to speak past the oppressors and illegitimate rulers and directly to their people.” He insisted: “Regardless of tribe or tongue people desire to be free.” And, “America must continue to be the world’s leading advocate for freedom speaking the truth to adversaries and dictators and in keeping with our democratic values.”
Liberty University News Service indicated a strongly positive response. “Instead of choosing to make it a political forum, he chose to speak from his heart,” explained one student. “I will consider voting for him because he has good Christian values and I support him for his pro-life beliefs,” reported another. “What I know of Rick Perry is that he seems to be really genuine and has done great things in Texas,” extolled still another.
Religious themes have been common for Perry speeches across his political career. He has frequently preached in churches. In early August, he hosted a prayer rally for 30,000 in Houston. Organized by conservative Christian groups, it was lambasted by liberal critics as exclusionary. In his own brief remarks, Perry carefully focused on prayer and avoided overtly political statements.
As the New York Times reported after the Houston prayer session, “Few political figures in America have so consistently and so unabashedly intermingled their personal faith and their public persona, peppering speeches with quotations from Scripture, speaking from the pulpit at churches, regularly meeting and strategizing with evangelical Christians and even, in one recent speech, equating public office with the ministry.”
By most accounts, Perry’s religious faith is sincere and almost lifelong. He was raised a Methodist, where he has recalled to the Austin newspaper there was “comfort in tradition and stability” and where “we sang the doxology, the preacher would preach, we would have a hymn.” Perry currently attends a West Austin mega-church that has an unadvertised Southern Baptist affiliation. His speech at Liberty cited his spiritual search at age 27. In the New York Times story, Perry recalled: “At 27 years old, I knew that I’d been called to the ministry,” while adding how “really stunned” he is “by how big a pulpit I was going to have,” referring to his life in public service. But he has credited a Methodist evangelist for first winning him to faith at age 12.
At a Methodist Summer camp in the early 1960s, northwest of Abilene, Texas, a gregarious Methodist pastor named Ed Robb, Jr. taught Perry to swim. As governor in 2002, Perry told a reporter: “Ed taught me much more, he taught me about the Lord.” Robb recounted in his own 2002 memoir: “We had prayer together, and he trusted Jesus Christ. Little did I dream that Rick would grow up and become the governor of Texas.” Robb, who died in 2004, remembered visiting with Perry “often” in subsequent decades. Perry also befriended Robb’s son, Edmund Robb III, who pastors the Woodlands United Methodist, a mega-church outside Houston. As Texas Agriculture Commissioner in the 1990s and later as governor Perry has preached at the Woodlands Church.
The younger Rev. Robb told the New York Times that Perry is “absolutely” sincere in his faith: “Is it some newly found, politically convenient addition to his life? No. It’s long-term and it’s authentic.” Both Robbs represented the evangelical wing of United Methodism. The elder Robb as a pastor and evangelist championed conservative causes for decades in the denomination. As consummate a Texan as Perry, the elder Robb at age 19 foreswore smoking, drinking, and wild women at a Methodist altar in San Francisco after returning from the U.S. Navy in World War II. Distressed over his denomination’s alliance with Marxist liberation groups in the 1970s, the elder Robb joined with Christian intellectuals such as Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak in 1981 to found the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. (I am now the IRD’s president and was privileged personally to know Robb during his last 15 years.) Throughout the 1980s Robb chaired the IRD and was a frequent media critic of left-wing bias by Mainline Protestant denominations.
Perry doubtlessly shares Robb’s views about their denomination’s liberal stances. As governor he has attended and retained membership at Tarrytown United Methodist Church in Austin, also attended by George W. Bush while governor. But Methodism in Austin tends to be more liberal than elsewhere in Texas, perhaps partly explaining why Perry now attends evangelical Lake Hills Church. (He cites its proximity to his home.) Perry smilingly told the Liberty students that in his home town of Paint Creek, Texas, during his boyhood the only religious choices were the Baptist and Methodist churches. Speaking as a Methodist to a school founded and run by Baptists, Perry offered an appeal to “Christian values” that likely will resonate with many evangelicals. Probably so too will his counsel to applauding students: “Don’t leave it to a bunch of Washington politicians to tell you how to live your life.”