Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, in an appeal to evangelical voters, said “Christian values” and not “a bunch of Washington politicians” should be the touchstone guiding how Americans conduct their lives.
In a 20-minute address at Liberty University, a Christian institution in Lynchburg, Virginia, the Texas governor -- and his party’s White House frontrunner -- avoided specific campaign issues in describing his own “faith journey.” Perry is working to maintain momentum in the a race for the Republican nomination whose outcome could turn in large part on the preferences of evangelicals.
“America is going to be guided by some set of values,” Perry told a crowd of 13,000 students and faculty members yesterday at a sports arena on the school’s campus. “The question is going to be, ‘Whose values?’” He said it should be “those Christian values that this country was based upon.”
Perry, under attack from the left and right as Republican opponents challenge his positions on Social Security, immigration and vaccinations, bypassed those issues at the university’s thrice-weekly convocation service.
Instead, he introduced himself as an imperfect underdog who grew up poor -- with no indoor plumbing until age 5 and wearing clothes sewn by his mother -- struggled in school and lost his way before finding God.
“My faith journey is not the story of someone who turned to God because I wanted to; it was because I had nowhere else to turn,” Perry said, recounting how, as a confused 27-year-old Air Force pilot, he turned to religion to give him direction in life. “He doesn’t require perfect people to execute his perfect plan,” Perry said. “God uses broken people to reach a broken world.”
Evangelical voters have been influential in recent Republican presidential primaries, comprising almost half of those who turn out to vote, according to polling analysts. They hold outsized sway in Iowa, site of the nation’s first caucuses, where 60 percent of participants in the 2008 Republican contest described themselves to pollsters as born-again or evangelical Christians.
Perry is competing for this bloc primarily with Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, the winner of the Aug. 13 Iowa straw poll who has seen her standing in public surveys plummet since Perry entered the race the following day.
Bachmann is to speak at Liberty on Sept. 28. School Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. -- son and namesake of the late social conservative commentator who founded the university -- said he had invited Perry to speak before he was a candidate for president. By month’s end, Falwell said, five of the eight Republican presidential contenders will have spoken here.
It’s no longer solely social issues that will determine the preferences of evangelical voters, Falwell said in an interview before Perry spoke.
“The shift towards socialism -- I think that’s become an overriding issue,” Falwell said. “It used to be abortion, gay marriage, whatever. But now it’s more: How much of my taxes, how much more is government going to grow, how many of my freedoms are going to be taken away? That’s what’s brought the Tea Party and social conservatives and fiscal conservatives all together.”
Perry closed his talk with a dig at the federal government, telling students: “Don’t leave it to a bunch of Washington politicians to tell you how to live your life.”
Falwell said he hasn’t endorsed any Republican presidential contender, yet made it clear he is a fan of Perry’s. He waved off a controversy over Perry’s 2007 attempt to mandate vaccinations of pre-teen girls in Texas against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, a cause of cervical cancer.
Perry said during a Sept. 12 debate that it was a “mistake” not to have consulted with the Texas legislature on the move, an answer Falwell said was “good enough for me.”
Falwell introduced Perry to students as a successful governor with an “A-plus” grade from the National Rifle Association and “among the most pro-life governors in American history.” He compared Perry favorably with Ronald Reagan.
Falwell recounted how, as a freshman at Liberty, he went to hear then-California Governor Reagan speak at a time of national malaise, then watched as he was elected president and “returned America to prominence and prosperity.”
“I have a feeling today that history is about to repeat itself,” Falwell said.