By John Whitesides
LYNCHBURG, Virginia (Reuters) - Republican presidential frontrunner Rick Perry described his spiritual journey to find God to a crowd of evangelical Christian students on Wednesday and urged them to stand up for their religious values.
In a starkly personal speech, Perry told Liberty University students that when he left the U.S. Air Force at age 27 he was deeply worried about his future and spent hours in prayer.
"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," said Perry, who has made his Christian beliefs a central part of his public image.
"I was lost spiritually and emotionally and I didn't know how to fix it," he said. "What I learned ... was that I didn't have to have all the answers, that they would be revealed to me in due time."
Perry, the governor of Texas, has soared to the top of polls in the 2012 Republican presidential race with strong backing from religious and social conservatives who have a big voice in the party's nominating process.
The trip to Liberty, which bills itself as the largest evangelical Christian university, was an opportunity for Perry to sharpen that appeal.
Founded in 1971 by conservative Christian leader Jerry Falwell, Liberty is a hotbed of Christian political activism and is a frequent stop for Republican presidential candidates.
Perry urged the convocation crowd of more than 10,000 students not to worry if they were uncertain of their place in the world and to devote themselves to God and to service to others.
"Small acts of love and devotion remind us we are part of something bigger than ourselves," he said. "Trust that God wouldn't have put you here unless he had a unique plan for your life."
He also told the students to get active in politics.
"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," he said. "Don't leave it to a bunch of Washington politicians to tell you how to live your life."
Perry also praised the military and told students to "redeem their sacrifice by living lives worthy of it."
Perry, who attends an evangelical church in Texas, has emphasized his faith during his political career. He held a day-long rally last month to pray for America that drew more than 30,000 believers to a football stadium in Texas.
Perry's visit to Liberty in central Virginia came two days after a Florida debate where he was criticized for ordering the vaccination of young girls in Texas for a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer.
The executive order, which Perry called a mistake, has upset some social conservatives who oppose government intrusion in private matters.
But Jerry Falwell Jr., the son of Liberty University's founder and now its chancellor, said he thought Perry had addressed the issue and it was time to move on.
"I don't think you'll find a candidate in the world who hasn't made some mistakes," Falwell told reporters before Perry's speech. "He's said all that needs to be said."
Falwell said five of the Republican contenders will have visited the school by the end of the month, when Michele Bachmann is scheduled to be here.
He said any of the Republican contenders would be better than President Barack Obama "with a few exceptions" -- Representative Ron Paul and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who he said were not electable.
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Cynthia Osterman)