Before he launched his bid for the presidency three years ago, Gov. Rick Perry drew thousands of worshipers to an air-conditioned stadium in Houston, where Christian conservative activists prayed for the nation and the soon-to-announce candidate proclaimed his faith in God.
Perry is still said to have his eyes on the White House, but the religious event he staged last month was nothing like the flashy “prayerpalooza” at Reliant Stadium in 2011.
With only close friends and family looking on, the born-again Christian governor was baptized outdoors, in the spring waters once used to wash the sins off Sam Houston, the first elected president of the Republic of Texas and one of the most colorful political figures in American history.
When Houston emerged from Little Rocky Creek near Independence, Texas, in 1854, he was reported to have proclaimed, “I pity the fish downstream.”
There’s no word yet on what Perry said after he was dunked, but his office confirmed that the ceremony took place last month. And the pastor whose congregation still uses the creek for baptisms recounted the governor’s subsequent visit to the nearby church, where he said Perry played a soulful hymn on the organ and soaked up the rich local history.
“Gov. Perry has a deep and abiding faith in God,” Perry spokesman Felix Browne said in a written statement. “Like many people of faith, the governor wished to reaffirm his commitment in a way that holds great personal meaning.”
Though Perry’s recent expression of faith took place away from the media spotlight, the governor has not shied away from pushing religion into the public square.
In 2005, he stirred controversy by using a Fort Worth evangelical Christian school to stage a bill-signing ceremony where he affixed his signature to legislation restricting abortion and a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. A few years later, in the midst of a punishing Texas drought, Perry issued an official proclamation calling on Texans to pray for rain.
Perhaps Perry’s boldest and most overt melding of politics and religion came a week before he announced for president in 2011. An estimated 30,000 worshipers flocked to Houston for his modern-day revival, called “The Response,” a boisterous prayer meeting with gospel music and Christian rock, emotional sermons and a clear boost for Perry in the days leading up to his announcement.
Over the ensuing months, religious overtones reverberated through the campaign, like the moment when Dallas megachurch preacher Robert Jeffress called eventual Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s Mormon religion a “cult.”
Then, right before he flamed out for good, Perry provoked public derision and private turmoil inside his campaign for running a TV ad perceived as anti-gay that highlighted his Christian faith while lamenting that “gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”
The "Strong" ad was a final indignity in a campaign already on the ropes after Perry’s infamous "oops" moment, when the governor famously forgot — during a nationally televised debate — the third federal department he wanted to shut down.
Perry is again flirting with a run for the White House, but he seems to have tamped down his notorious Texas swagger a bit. He’s taken to wearing comfortable loafers instead of cowboy boots, sports studious black glasses and comes off as more of an elder statesman than the Tea Party rebel he channeled in 2010 and 2011. Last week, he told CBS This Morning that his 2012 run was a “humbling experience,” but said he learned and grew from it.
"I think how people respond when they've been knocked down is a better reflection of their character than if everything is all blue sky and the wind behind your back," he said. "I've had the wind in my face. I've been knocked down, and I'm ready to move on."
Perry’s recent baptism appears to be in keeping with his new, lower-key approach, but it could also signal spiritual preparation for another national political endeavor. He chose the exact same creek where Houston, who lived in the Texas Governor's Mansion nearly a century and a half before Perry moved in, became a God-fearing Baptist.
Houston served as governor of Tennessee in the late 1820s and then became the first elected president of the Republic of Texas in 1836, after helping lead Anglo settlers to victory in their war of independence from Mexico. When Texas became a state, Houston represented it in the U.S. Senate and later became governor. In 1861, the pro-Union governor famously refused to pledge loyalty to a Confederate Texas and was promptly replaced.
Houston, at the urging of his Baptist wife, was baptized in Little Rocky Creek on Nov. 19, 1854, by Rev. Rufus Burleson, the founder of Baylor University. The creek has served for well over a century as the natural baptistery for Independence Baptist Church, founded in 1839 and considered the oldest continuously operating Baptist church in Texas, said the church’s pastor, Phil Hassell.
The creek has suffered from the lingering Texas drought and these days is often covered with algae and lily pads. So before Perry went to be baptized, Hassell said he asked the local volunteer fire department to spray off the gunk to clear a good spot for the Texas governor.
Mac Richard, pastor of Lake Hills Church in Austin, presided over the baptism ceremony, according to the governor’s office.
Richard did not return a phone call Monday.
Hassell said Perry asked that it be a strictly private event, but afterward he stopped by the church and local Baptist museum before taking a tour of the town. Hassell showed the governor around the tiny church, where he got to see the pew in which Houston had carved his initials and those of his wife, Margaret Lea Houston.
“He had his parents with him and his sister and a couple of guests, just a few. It was very low key,” Hassell said. “I never met him before, but he was personable, kind of down to earth.”
While at the church, Perry played a gospel hymn on an 1874 pump organ, which makes sound with the help of foot-operated bellows.
“It’s not easy to play a pump organ. You’ve got to move your feet while you play,” Hassell said. “I thought he played well.”
Former Perry aide and speechwriter Eric Bearse said he wasn’t surprised that Perry renewed his faith in a private, intimate ceremony.
“Baptism is a very personal expression of faith,” Bearse said. “He has a deep and abiding faith, and it influences his view of the world and how he lives his life, but not every expression of faith is meant to be a public ceremony.”