On a remote ranch more than 70 miles west of Austin, Texas, top evangelical leaders from around the country assembled last weekend for a private two-day retreat.
It wasn’t a religious revival that drew the group of 200, which included luminaries of the Christian right; it was the chance to hear the personal testimony of one man: Rick Perry.
Inside an air-conditioned tent, the Texas governor and Republican presidential contender was grilled about his beliefs and his record in extraordinarily frank sessions. He responded by describing his relationship with Jesus and pledging to pursue the antiabortion and anti-gay-marriage agenda championed by the evangelical right, according to multiple participants.
The well-secured retreat, hosted by a longtime Perry donor, was a pivotal opportunity for the governor and some of the country’s most influential evangelical pastors and organizers. The Christian leaders — who included Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson and Jim Garlow, a La Mesa, Calif., pastor — got an up-close look at a major presidential contender as they seek an electable candidate who represents their interests. And Perry had a chance to profess his Christian bona fides to this key constituency.
By all accounts, he appeared to pass the test.
“I don’t see how it could have gone any better for Gov. Perry — he had all the right answers,” said one prominent figure who attended the retreat and declined to be named, citing a pledge to the organizers that participants would not discuss the event publicly.
Among Perry’s promises to those at the ranch: that he would select a running mate who opposes abortion rights.
When asked when he accepted Jesus as his savior, Perry responded that he was raised with Christ, though he admitted he left the path at some point when he served in the Air Force in the 1970s. God then got his attention again, Perry said, and he recommitted himself to a life of faith. He assured those in attendance that he has lived a moral life and said he had a group of people who held him accountable for following a Christian path, including someone who prayed with him during his recent back surgery.
“He spoke openly about his faith and unabashedly so,” said one leader who was present. “I think he resonated because he was very honest and very real. People could ask any questions, and he never dodged one.”
Perry spokesman Mark Miner said the gathering was on the governor’s schedule long before he announced his presidential bid. He declined to comment on what Perry said at the closed meeting, but added that the purpose of the event was “to get conservative religious leaders together to talk about issues facing the country.”
Perry, a Methodist who worships at an evangelical megachurch in west Austin, already had a strong standing among many Christian leaders in Texas. But some of his past decisions as governor — including a push to vaccinate all sixth-grade girls against a sexually transmitted disease — made some evangelicals wary.
In recent weeks, he has received criticism from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and backers of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, two other Christian conservatives vying for the GOP nomination.
The retreat, dubbed “A Call to Action,” comes just weeks after Perry hosted a massive prayer rally in Houston called “The Response,” underscoring his aggressive efforts to win over religious conservatives. Christian leaders agree that he has solidified his standing in the community, which could prove especially valuable as he campaigns in Iowa and South Carolina, pivotal nominating states with large numbers of evangelical voters.
“I personally think those who care about Judeo-Christian values will be very impressed with him,” said Garlow, who declined to discuss any specifics of the retreat. Garlow, a leading proponent of California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, is a longtime ally of Newt Gingrich, but said he would probably back Perry if the former House speaker failed to gain traction to win the nomination.
The weekend meeting received little public attention, even though attendees included national figures such as Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and Washington-area Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., who presides over one of the largest African American churches on the East Coast.
In addition, the audience included dozens of young people from around the country, including many African Americans and Latinos. Participants were asked not to disclose details or take photographs or audio recordings of the proceedings, which occurred in the drought-stricken scrub of Texas Hill Country, where weekend temperatures soared above 105 degrees.
“It was an extraordinary gathering,” said one participant. “Virtually anyone who is a significant player in the social conservative movement either was there or had a representative there. And this was in the middle of nowhere.”
The event was held on a large ranch owned by San Antonio entrepreneur James Leininger, a backer of conservative causes and one of Perry’s longtime political benefactors.
Attendees were struck not only by the clout of those who participated, but by the amount of time Perry spent with the group. The governor and his wife mingled with the Christian leaders Friday evening and for several hours Saturday, fielding questions about their faith and his record.
At one point, a participant noted that Perry disappointed many evangelicals when he backed the 2008 presidential bid of former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a social moderate who supports abortion rights, and asked whether he would pick a running mate who opposes them. Perry promised he would — excluding the possibility of tapping someone like Giuliani.
The governor was also asked to explain his attempt in 2007 to require girls to be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus, a cause of cervical cancer. Perry reiterated his recent statement that such an effort was a mistake.
The event was opened by Leininger, who made his fortune in high-tech hospital beds and other medical equipment and has since started dozens of companies, some of which received state economic development funds under Perry’s administration.
In 1998, when Perry ran for lieutenant governor in Texas, Leininger was among those who guaranteed a $1.1-million loan to his campaign, allowing Perry to launch a last-minute advertising blitz that helped him to a narrow victory.
Since Perry became governor, Leininger has given his campaigns nearly $240,000 and donated $100,000 to the Republican Governors Assn., which Perry chaired twice, according to the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.
Leininger is a major advocate for school vouchers and tort reform and a stalwart opponent of abortion and gay marriage.