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Masking bias

Here's a little morsel of Eureka Springs History that I decided to take a bite out of.

Gerald Lyman Kenneth Smith was a minister and political agitator who built a series of “Sacred Projects” here in Eureka Springs.

Beginning in the 1960s, when they were first being built, these tourist attractions were to have a religious theme.

Smith attained prominence first in the 1930s as an organizer for Louisiana political boss Huey P. Long but was known more for far-right activism, particularly for anti-Semitic and fascist causes.

Hmmm, the very man who brought us this statue, this symbol of love and hope, masked his bias behind his own "religious freedoms?"

Gerald L. K. Smith was born on February 7, 1898, on a farm in Pardeeville, Wisconsin, to Lyman Z. Smith and Sarah Smith. He had one sister. He was descended from three generations of Disciples of Christ ministers, earned a degree in biblical studies from Valparaiso University in Indiana in 1918, and became a minister himself, serving churches in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana.

He married Elna Sorenson in 1922; they adopted their only child, Gerald L. K. Smith Jr.

In 1929, Smith took the job of pastor at Kings Highway Disciples of Christ Church in Shreveport, Louisiana. He met Long, a future United States senator, who maintained a law office in Shreveport and who later prevented foreclosure of some of Smith’s congregants’ houses. Throughout his career, Smith would be attracted to powerful men on the left and the right who influenced him, Senator Long was among them. His association with the politically liberal, Long angered conservative church directors, and only seven months after coming to Shreveport, Smith resigned from the church before they could fire him.

In the early 1930s, Smith began to express anti-Semitic and fascist sentiments and considered joining the Silver Shirts, a pro-Nazi group led by William Dudley Pelley. Instead, Smith became national organizer for Long’s Share-Our-Wealth Society, a group promoting the wealth redistribution plan that Long planned to use as the centerpiece for a 1936 presidential bid. The work made Smith discover his talent for moving the masses through public speaking.

Long was assassinated in September 1935, sending Smith in search of another cause and, ultimately, into the fold of Francis E. Townsend, a retired physician who proposed to ease the Great Depression by providing pensions to older people. In 1936, Smith and Townsend joined Father Charles E. Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest who became nationally prominent via his radio programs, to create the Union Party. Opposing President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the party chose North Dakota Congressman William Lemke as its standard-bearer. Smith said he was proud to speak not only for Lemke but also for the Constitution, the American flag, and the Bible. The Smith-Townsend-Coughlin collaboration faltered because of personal rivalries, and Lemke’s candidacy failed.

Smith continued his agitation, founding several vehicles to fight communism, liberalism, organized labor, and Jews: the Committee of One Million; the Christian Nationalist Crusade; a monthly publication, The Cross and the Flag; the America First Party; and the Christian Nationalist Party.

He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate and for the presidency several times. By 1956, when Smith made his last bid for the White House for the Christian Nationalist Party, his support base had shrunk to the far-right fringe. Nonetheless, he had enough adherents who provided contributions to fund his efforts.

Penn Castle in Eureka Springs

In 1964, Smith came to Arkansas and bought Penn Castle, the Victorian mansion here in Eureka Springs. He remodeled it lavishly, turning it into his retirement home.

Two years later, he built the first of his Sacred Projects, a 66 foot statue of Jesus, the “Christ of the Ozarks,” here on Magnetic Mountain.

Soon Smith added the Christ Only Art Gallery, a Bible Museum, and a Passion Play staged in an outdoor amphitheater. The play was performed on a 400-foot reproduction of a street in old Jerusalem and included live animals. By 1975, the theater was expanded from 3,000 seats to 6,000 seats, and more than 188,000 had watched the play, making it the largest outdoor pageant in the United States.

Jews denounced the play as anti-Semitic, but Smith called it “the only presentation of its kind in the world which has not diluted its content to flatter the Christ-hating Jews."

The Sacred Projects helped to revitalize Eureka Springs.

Despite local criticism of Smith, he was hailed as an area hero and planned another major attraction: a $100 million, Disney-like replica of the Holy Land, including the Great Wall of Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee, the River Jordan, in which people could be baptized, and scenes from Jesus’s life. Only the wall was finished before Smith died.

Although The Sacred Projects gave Smith some respectability, all these years later, the criticism of Smith continues as these projects alone cannot mask the antisemitism and hatred for which he is most known.

He maintained that Jesus was a Gentile whom Jews crucified; that Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower were Jews; that Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler was a Bolshevik and a Jewish foil; that Jews invented communism; and that Jews prodded African Americans to begin the civil rights movement to jolt a tranquil American society.

Today, this community embraces everyone, from all walks of life. Eureka Springs is diverse every day of the year and the town, even in it's quietest times, like during the Covid-19 stay-at-home order, looks for ways to help, give back, be neighborly and love. For ALL.

If Smith was this kind of hate-mongering human being when he walked our streets, as the history books tell us, he should not be memorialized as a d0-g00der. To be known for such hatred actions and for bringing us The Christ of The Ozarks, is simply Smith hiding behind a mask.

The Christ of The Ozarks statue is ours, the people of Eureka Springs, because it symbolizes love and hope to ALL people. Christ gazes with watchful eyes over our town - keeping everyone here safe.

Ironically, Smith died of pneumonia on April 15, 1976, in California, his winter home. Is it not prophetic to think that he is intentionally buried at the foot of the Christ of the Ozarks statue, forever kept socially distant by 66 feet from the mask behind which he hid.

Even today, in the year 2020, the subject of religious freedom is a hot topic. Hobby Lobby stores initially defied the edicts to close (due to Covid-19) after the owner's wife apparently received a message from God, only to eventually submit to closure after hearing from Colorado's attorney general.

In the early 1980's, a case in Massachusetts, created new case law that prevents “religious freedom” from becoming a badge for bias -- William E. Alberts vs. Donald T. Devine & others, 395 Mass. 59, Oct. 5, 1984-June 4, 1985.

Although the freedom to believe is absolute, the freedom to act cannot be. Conduct remains subject to regulation for the protection of society. The freedom to act must have appropriate definition to preserve the enforcement of that protection.

Religious freedom is not a license for violating the civil rights of others. Religious freedom should be about self-empowerment, not gaining power over others. One person’s religious or civil freedom should not require another person’s subjugation. Freedom to be and to become and to belong are in the DNA of every human being, and should be honored by every religion and government.

No mask will obscure hateful actions in the face of Jesus Christ.


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