Before he launched his bid for the presidency three years ago, Gov. Rick Perry drew thousands of worshippers 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 close friends and relatives looking on, the born-again Christian governor was baptized in the creek where Sam Houston, the first elected president of the Republic of Texas, was baptized in 1854.
When Houston emerged from Little Rocky Creek near Independence in Southeast Texas, he reportedly proclaimed, “I pity the fish downstream.”
There’s no word on what Perry said, but his office confirmed that the baptism took place last month.
And the Baptist minister whose congregation still uses the creek for baptisms recounted the governor’s subsequent visit to the nearby church, where he said Perry played a 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 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 hold a ceremony where he signed legislation restricting abortion and a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. Years later, amid 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 worshipoers flocked to Houston for his modern-day revival, “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.
In 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. It 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.”
Perry is again flirting with a White House run, but he seems to have tamped down his Texas swagger. He wears 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 baptism appears to be in keeping with his lower-key approach, but it could also signal spiritual preparation for another national political endeavor.
As Texas schoolchildren learn, Sam Houston was one of the most colorful political figures in American history. He served as governor of Tennessee in the late 1820s and became the first elected president of the Republic of Texas in 1836 after helping lead Anglo settlers to victory in the war for independence from Mexico.
When Texas became a state, Houston represented it in the Senate and later became governor. In 1861, the pro-Union governor 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 the Rev. Rufus Burleson, the founder of Baylor University.
For well over a century, the creek has served as the natural baptistry for Independence Baptist Church, founded in 1839 and considered the oldest continuously operating Baptist church in Texas, said the pastor, the Rev. Phil Hassell.
The creek has suffered from the drought and is often covered with algae and lily pads. So Hassell said he asked the local volunteer fire department to spray off the gunk to clear a good spot for the governor.
Mac Richard, pastor of Lake Hills Church in Austin, presided over the baptism, according to the governor’s office.
Richard did not return a phone call Monday.
Hassell said that Perry asked for a strictly private event but that he stopped by the church and the attached Baptist museum afterward before taking a tour of the town. Hassell showed the governor around the small sanctuary, where he got to see the pew where Houston 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.
“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 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.”