Texas retreat brought together Perry, religious leaders

From Fort Worth Star Telegram, By Tom Hamburger and Matea Gold, Tribune Washington Bureau, 09/02/2011 – On a remote ranch more than 70 miles west of Austin, top evangelical leaders from across 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 but the chance to hear the personal testimony of one man: Gov. Rick Perry.

Inside an air-conditioned tent, Perry, a Republican presidential contender, was grilled about his beliefs and record in extraordinarily frank sessions. He responded by describing his relationship with Jesus and pledging to pursue the anti-abortion and anti-gay-marriage agenda championed by the evangelical right, according to multiple participants.

A Call to Action, a well-secured retreat hosted by a longtime Perry donor, was a pivotal opportunity for both Perry and some of the country’s most influential evangelical pastors and organizers.

Dr. James Dobson

The Christian leaders — who included Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and La Mesa, Calif., pastor Jim Garlow — 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: that he would select a running mate who opposes abortion rights.

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 a group of people hold him accountable for following a Christian path, including someone who prayed with him during his recent back surgery.

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 a 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.

‘Very impressed’

A Call to Action was held weeks after Perry hosted The Response, a massive prayer rally in Houston, underscoring his aggressive efforts to win over religious conservatives.

Christian leaders agree that he has now solidified his standing in the community — which could prove especially valuable as he campaigns in Iowa and South Carolina, pivotal nominating states with many 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 former House Speaker Newt Gingrich but said he would likely back Perry if Gingrich fails to gain traction to win the nomination.

The weekend meeting received little public attention, 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 Jackson, who presides over one of the largest African-American churches on the East Coast.

‘Extraordinary’

In addition, dozens of young people from across the country, including many African-Americans and Latinos, were in the audience. Participants were asked not to disclose details, take photographs or make audio recordings.

“It was an extraordinary gathering,” one participant said.

“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 in Texas Hill Country owned by San Antonio entrepreneur James Leininger, a backer of conservative causes and one of Perry’s longtime political benefactors.

In 1998, when Perry ran for lieutenant governor, 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 Association, which Perry chaired twice, according to the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.

Leininger is a major advocate of school vouchers and tort reform and a stalwart opponent of abortion and gay marriage.

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