LYNCHBURG, Va. — Texas Gov. Rick Perry spent Wednesday morning preaching to the choir.
To uproarious cheers in a packed basketball arena at the world’s largest evangelical university, Perry spoke more like a minister than a politician, motivating students to use their Christian values to wrest control of their futures from Washington.
“You have the right to insist on change, to tell the people in power you will not have your inheritance spent or your future mortgaged,” Perry said, referencing his recent comments on Social Security. “This country is your country as well. Don’t leave it to a bunch of Washington politicians to tell you how to live your life.”
Perry also used the opportunity to reassert his deep biblical faith, saying his “happiest moments are when I’m in communion with God.” And he explained — mostly in jest — his less-than-stellar grades at Texas A&M University, saying his commitment to the university’s military culture got in the way of academics, but didn’t hinder his success. “Four semesters of organic chemistry made a pilot out of me,” he joked.
On the heels of a GOP debate Monday in which he was pounded, even booed, for stances deemed not conservative enough, Perry found a warm reception among the 10,000 students gathered at Liberty — and from Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. The chancellor has not endorsed a candidate, but his backing is considered key to gaining support from social conservatives. Falwell’s father Jerry Falwell Sr., who founded the university in 1971, died in 2007, six years after he famously said abortion, feminism and homosexuality were partly to blame for the Sept. 11 attacks. (He later apologized.)
Before Perry’s speech, Falwell addressed reporters, saying that although he hadn’t endorsed a candidate yet, Perry shared the social conservative values of the university, and that at least two other GOP candidates, Texas Congressman Ron Paul and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, were “unelectable.” He reiterated comments from Tuesday that Perry shouldn’t take too much heat for his 2007 HPV vaccine mandate, saying everyone has political stumbles. And he said no non-border state governor should judge Perry for authorizing in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants, something Tea Partiers have lambasted him for on the trail.
Perry largely steered clear of social conservative politics in his speech, which followed throbbing Christian rock tunes and Falwell’s introductory remarks. He made no reference to his track record on anti-abortion legislation or gun rights, for example, which Falwell mentioned for him, earning wild applause.
Instead, Perry candidly discussed the depths of his faith, including the period in his life where he said he became closest to God — the long nights, as a 27-year-old, after he left the Air Force and returned to Paint Creek.
“I was lost spiritually and emotionally. I didn’t know how to fix it,” Perry said. “I spent many a night pondering my purpose, talking to God, wondering what to do with this one life among the billions that were on the planet.”
Speaking three days after the tenth anniversary of Sept. 11, Perry also gave a resounding thanks to the country’s young soldiers, and he said American students, many of whom were children the day the towers and the Pentagon were struck, have had to grow up too fast. “You know the presence of evil is real in this fallen world,” he said. “…You are blessed to live in freedom. But as the scripture says: To whom much is given, much is expected in return.”