In the summer of 1986, freshly graduated from Baylor University, 21-year-old Trey Gowdy had no clue where his life was headed. He had a history degree, but no vision for his future. It was as if his very existence was pointless, aimless.
A native of Spartanburg, S.C., Gowdy had turned down a scholarship to the University of South Carolina’s law school and, almost as an escape, considered moving far away to Las Cruces, N.M., to join a friend’s construction business.
Searching for answers, he secluded himself at a friend’s western North Carolina lake home. Though he had received Christ as his Savior as a young boy, God seemed far away.
After fishing one afternoon—and catching nothing—he turned on a black-and-white television set in the den, figuring he would watch sports.
Instead, he landed on a channel with Billy Graham preaching.
He was cut to the heart and fell to his knees.
“I’m lost,” he cried out to God. “You’ve got to help me. Please give me a sense of purpose and direction.”
It was a divinely inspired turning point, re-igniting his relationship with the Lord and infusing him with vision.
“You don’t have that many inflection points in life that you can point to and say it represented a change,” says Gowdy, now 52. “That would be the most important one because from that came most of the good things that have happened in my life.”
Gowdy enrolled in South Carolina’s law school—minus the scholarship that had already been awarded to someone else.
That set him on a path to a successful legal career, including serving as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office and eventually to his current position representing the 4th District of South Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Gowdy is revered by many—and reviled by some—for his piercing interrogations in congressional hearings of such key government figures as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, FBI director James Comey, former U.S. Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, and his blistering rebuke of former IRS official Lois Lerner. He also chaired the House Select Committee investigating the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack.
Gowdy, who’s been called a “rising star” in the conservative ranks, uses truth like a laser to dismantle deception.
“He stands firmly on the basic, fundamental tenets of the law of the United States of America and does so with a heart that is governed by the essential mandates that God gives us through His Word and by His Spirit,” says Gowdy’s pastor at First Baptist Church of Spartanburg, Don Wilton, who also serves as Mr. Graham’s personal pastor.
“Congressman Gowdy doesn’t believe ‘in God we trust’ is just a catch phrase or something you put on a dollar bill or write on a document,” Wilton says. “He knows it as a fundamental principle of the heart and the modus operandi by which our Founding Fathers deeply and profoundly believed we ought to function.”
Gowdy bristles at the relativism that is so rampant in our culture, the valuing of freedom of expression over any semblance of absolute truth.
“Relativism is second only to nihilism. To me, those are the twin pillars of decline,” he says. “Once you accept that your ‘truth’ is different from and maybe opposite to someone else’s truth but they’re both equally acceptable … that has the potential to be a societal undoing. I like to say, ‘What has stood the test of time in terms of objective truth?’ For me, that is Scripture and the teachings of Christ.”
Gowdy is an ardent student of the Bible who aims to live, govern and ask questions based upon the model of Christ.
“I’ve read everything that’s recorded [in the Bible] that He ever said—many times,” says Gowdy. “The way Christ interacted with people is fascinating, and He had the benefit of knowing the answer before He asked the question.
“One of the qualities He assigned to Himself was that of humility. So if the Son of God described Himself as humble, what does that tell the rest of us? Humility is actually very persuasive.”
Gowdy is unrelentingly true to his prosecutorial background during congressional hearings, but he’s also committed to maintaining amicable, reconciled relationships outside of those confrontational settings with the people he questions.
“I went to lunch with Eric Holder not that long ago,” Gowdy says. “I don’t agree with him on many things, but I learn from other people’s perspectives. I’ve never had a cross word outside the committee room with Cheryl Mills, who is Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.
“I’ve lost my temper in hearings—I’m not saying I haven’t—but I try to let go of that the second the hearing is over and go shake hands with whoever the witness is. When I was a prosecutor, there was a defense attorney I used to argue death penalty cases against in court, but then we could go and play golf together on the weekend. I guess the best way to put it is I don’t carry a grudge.”
That’s just another way of trying to follow Jesus’ example.
“Christ treated people well that society would not have treated well, and He spoke truth to those who had high positions in society,” Gowdy says. “He interacted with people who society would say were not of the right level. So if that’s the Person who authors your worldview, maybe you should do likewise.”
Wilton says Gowdy is a byproduct of his family’s Christian upbringing. His parents, who also attend First Baptist, have been on numerous mission trips, and they have been active in the community.
“To borrow a phrase, he comes from the finest stock that you can possibly imagine,” Wilton says. “He comes from a family of servants.”
Gowdy’s faith has also grown as a result of his wife Terri’s walk with the Lord.
“My wife is the most Christ-like person I’ve ever known,” he says. “No offense to ministers and missionaries and other people, but I’ve lived with her for almost 28 years. I’m someone who likes to have things proven to me, not asserted or alleged. So when you tell me Christ has changed someone’s life, I want to see it. Not for a week. Not for two weeks. I want to see it. And for me, my wife is that proof.”
Terri, an elementary school teacher, says her husband has helped teach their son, Watson, 24, and daughter, Abigail, 20, to think deeply about matters of faith.
“He’s always communicated the importance of knowing why you believe what you believe,” she says. “I think that’s really helped our children be stronger in their faith than I ever was at their age.
“And he’s a tremendous example to me of what it means to actually be equipped with the Word. He has a great memory and can quote Scripture, whereas I’d be saying, ‘Let me see, where is that verse?’ It’s been a challenge for me to incorporate more of that into my life.”
On Capitol Hill, Gowdy’s closest friend is Sen. Tim Scott, the first African-American U.S. senator from South Carolina. They meet frequently for fellowship and Bible study, and are discussing ways to help foster racial reconciliation in the nation.
“There is no bill, no legislation that’s going do it,” Gowdy says. “Relationship changes can help, so we’re going to spearhead an effort to get people who are distrustful of one another together behind closed doors, where confidentiality is the only requirement, and just tell the truth.”
Gowdy knows, however, that lasting reconciliation and the spiritual awakening America—and Washington—so desperately needs can only come through Christ.
“When I was a kid, I would hear these political candidates say, ‘My religious views are very important to me, but they’re private,’” Gowdy says. “Well, if they’re private, if they don’t influence every facet of your life, then they must not be that important to you. Everything from the tax code to how you treat the poor, all of that has to be instructed by your faith.”