Rick Perry's Faith: Story of Personal Turmoil Still Largely Unexplained

WASHINGTON -- "He never talks about his faith," Rick Perry spokesman Mark Miner said of the Texas governor earlier this year.

Miner's statement is not entirely true. Perry has spoken in some detail this year, before and after becoming a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, about how he became a Christian.

But Perry's tale is tantalizingly short on details, and he has mentioned it only a few times. He was most publicly expansive during a Sept. 14 speech at Liberty University, an evangelical college in Virginia.

"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. I was 27. I'd 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," Perry said.

He went no further then, and has not explained that period of his life publicly since. Perry will speak in Washington on Friday afternoon at a religiously-themed event, the Value Voters Summit, where he will have an opportunity to expand more on the issue.

There are some details about Perry's life in 1977 that can help explain why he might have felt "lost." He was returning from seeing the world as an Air Force cargo plane pilot to Paint Creek, Texas, his tiny home town in north central Texas. He was unmarried, and would remain so for five more years. In the mean time, he moved back in with his parents and began farming cotton with his father, with whom he has said he did not get along for a while.

"My dad was pretty sure I was the same stupid eighteen year old that had left. I was pretty sure he hadn't gotten any smarter either," Perry said in late May, according to a transcript of his remarks in a private meeting with east Texas business leaders in Longview.

"So we went through this really brutal period of time of finding our comfort zone," Perry said. "But God was dealing with me."

Perry's explanation is half of the traditional Christian salvation story. Most "born again" Christians relate a two-part story. The first half is a narrative of realizing a need for faith or for God. The second part usually entails a realization or revelation that brings them to a place of faith. Perry's story -- as he has told it so far -- brings him to the point of crisis, but does not go into how he came out.

And if Perry was emotionally and spiritually troubled during that time of his life, he was able to hide it well enough. It wasn't noticeable to those around Perry at the time.

"He was always a member of the church, but I don't remember any sudden change. I'd be interested to hear that myself -- I really would," said Waller Overton, who at 71 is 10 years older than the 61-year old Perry and whose father was Perry's Boy Scout troop leader.

But Overton said that, having spent two years abroad in the military himself, he could identify with the feelings Perry expressed about his return to Paint Creek.

"He'd been in command of people and all of a sudden you find there's nothing to be in command of," Overton said. "That's the brakes... Suddenly everything stopped. Maybe he filled his life with God."

In that same May 23 speech, in an apparent reference to his state of mind after coming to faith at age 27, Perry said, "I knew that I'd been called to the ministry."

"I've just always been really stunned by how big a pulpit I was gonna have," Perry said, making explicit the comparison of his job as governor to that of a pastor. "I truly believe with all my heart that God has put me in this place at this time to do his will."

Perry, in his remarks, was promoting an Aug. 6 revival-style day of prayer in Houston at which he was to appear. But some of the religious leaders he affiliated with at that event -- combined with rhetoric comparing his position as governor to that of a pulpit -- raise questions about his view of the role of faith in politics.

One woman who appeared on stage with Perry in Houston, Alice Patterson, has written that there is "a demonic structure behind the Democratic Party." Some have characterized her point of view as overly partisan, but in her view there is also a "demonic structure" influencing the Republican Party.

While many people of different faiths, including Christians, traditionally believe to different degrees that there is a spiritual world unseen to the eye, Patterson's religious views are marked by a preoccupation with demons and spirits.

Kyle Mantyla, who blogs for a site called "Right Wing Watch" that is run by the liberal nonprofit People for the American Way, characterized the views Patterson explained in her book by writing, "Whereas the Democrats are controlled [sic] by 'Jezebel' via a 'network of demonic principalities that demanded allegiance, worship and the shedding of innocent blood,' the Republicans are controlled by 'Ahab' which makes GOP leaders passive and yield to intimidation instead of standing up on Godly principles."

On Aug. 6, as Perry stood onstage with Patterson and pastor C.L. Jackson, he recognized both.

"I want to especially thank brother C.L. Jackson who's standing here with me and a great man of God, and Alice Patterson. They both have been with me and praying with me and supported me through the years," Perry said.

But a fellow leader who moves in the same circles as Patterson, C. Peter Wagner, said in an interview with National Public Radio this week that he had questions about Perry's appearance with Patterson.

"I wish somebody would ask Rick Perry how much he knew ... before he invited Alice to help organize it," said C. Peter Wagner, a leader in a group he has called the New Apostolic Reformation.

A Perry campaign spokesman did not reply when asked about the issue on Thursday.

Even for some of Perry's closest supporters in the evangelical world, there is an element of mystery to the Texas governor's spiritual history.

Richard Rios, the chairman of the Christian Coalition of California, has attended numerous meetings with Perry and was assigned by the Perry campaign to be a surrogate after the Sept. 7 debate in Simi Valley, speaking on Perry's behalf to the press after the debate in the media spin room.

Rios has heard Perry refer to this time in his late 20s, but has never heard the Texas governor explain what specifically brought Perry so low and then to a place of faith.

"The details of what makes him say that is never shared, other than something happened or something occurred at that point in his life that affirmed his position of faith," Rios told HuffPost. "He talked about it being one of the low points ... and whatever happened at that point changed that."

"And no, he’s never expanded on that," he said. "Even to the evangelical leaders that are around him right now, the ones I know of."