Editor’s Note: Story contains explicit language.
This summer, I was living in Northwest Arkansas when a political firestorm brought the region into national headlines. On the evening of July 8, members of the activist art collective Indecline snuck onto the grounds of The Great Passion Play and installed a massive banner across the equally massive Christ of the Ozarks statue. Its message: “God Bless Abortions.”
The banner was a response to an increase in abortion restrictions nationwide, including in Arkansas, where in March a new law banned nearly all abortions in the state, without exceptions for cases of rape and incest.
As a piece of art and as a piece of activism, whether or not the banner was successful is debatable. In some ways, the banner is just another piece of noise in the already divisive abortion conversation, but on the other hand, it invokes complex histories of place that have shaped the American South for the past 90 years. In the days after the banner was hung, I watched local reactions unfold firsthand and visited the site of the provocation to better understand the full context of Indecline’s action.
Interpreting the Reactions
The official Great Passion Play response ignored the banner’s message, instead chastising the group for endangering themselves and thanking them for donating a drop cloth, but other reactions to the banner, predictably, included outrage. The banner, like many of Indecline’s other projects, was intentionally provocative. Its message played into culture war hysteria and the banner’s size allowed it to tap into the power of scale for maximum publicity. Yet, the well-publicized backlash to the banner might be seen as a failure of the project. Rather than developing a coordinated alternative to the anti-abortion legislation, the banner prompted people on both sides of the abortion debate to entrench their positions.
The banner also, unfortunately, strengthens the evangelical persecution complex. Also known as the “white Protestant persecution complex,” this damaging, innaccurate view holds that discrimination against Christians in the United States is more widespread than discrimination against minority groups. Purveyors of the idea that Christianity is under attack in the United States include politicians like former Vice President Mike Pence, who in 2019 gave a speech at Liberty University saying “freedom of religion is under assault. … You need to be prepared to meet opposition.” This persecution complex shuts down productive conversations by forbidding even mild criticism, and it unjustly minimizes the violence experienced by religious minority groups, the history of attacks on Black churches in the United States, and the persecution Christians continue to face at the hands of organizations like ISIS and Boko Haram. Now, the divisive message on Indecline’s banner can be used by those who profit from baiting their audiences with false persecution claims as an example of how “anti-Christian” certain “worldly” forces are.
However, if taken seriously, the banner’s simple message speaks to the need for nuanced conversations about abortion within faith communities. There is not widespread agreement across denominations and congregations of American Christians about whether or not abortions should be legal, let alone blessed. Clergy both bless abortion clinics and protest outside them. Even among Northwest Arkansas locals, reactions varied. One man who helped remove the banner posted a video calling it the work of satan. Another Arkansian was inspired by the news to share her personal story of abortion with me, a potentially radical act of trust in view of the increasingly harsh political climate, and one that recalls the Ozark tradition of establishing female networks of care.
In a statement released on Instagram, Indecline commented, “We think Jesus would understand the concept of a difficult decision. He supposedly had to make a few of them and understood sacrifice very intimately. … We aren’t necessarily ‘pro-choice” or ‘anti-life,’ those terms are double-speak. We just think abortion is a goddamn miracle worth celebrating. It saves lives, but those lives are usually female.” Using explicit language, Indecline adopts an irreverent posture, but the content of the statement responds within the theological framework of Christianity, challenging evangelical opponents of abortion at the source of their beliefs. It advocates for the inclusion of women’s lives in pro-life thinking, but while challenging hypocrisies it also acknowledges that evangelical morality is based upon a serious reading of the Bible.
In a later post, introducing a “God Bless Abortions” t-shirt sale and fundraiser for the Arkansas Abortion Support Network, Indecline admitted that the shirts (which are available in infant’s sizes) may seem “a bit antagonistic,” but continuing to dialogue about Christianity with their opponents instead of labeling them as crazy, the group proposed that “Jesus wasn’t worried about signs, he was worried about hypocrites.”
When considering the effectiveness and meanings of an activist gesture like this banner, place matters. As an Indecline statement said, “In Arkansas, there is only one 65-foot statue of Jesus. There is also only one abortion clinic.” However, the statue’s specific location within Arkansas, and the story of how it got there, is a large part of its significance. Standing atop Magnetic Mountain, the Christ of the Ozarks statue is visible from four states. Indecline, therefore, approached the statue as if it were a billboard, altering it with graffiti just as the collective altered other billboards in a guerilla art series designed to promote political messages.
If, as Indecline proposes through their methods, the Christ of the Ozarks statue is best thought of as a billboard, it is, in my experience, a billboard that advertises only to those who choose to seek it out. It neither welcomes all nor imposes upon those who would prefer to avoid it. Approaching the Christ of the Ozarks on the winding roads that lead East into Eureka Springs, the statue is obscured by trees and steep hills. Located at the far edge of The Great Passion Play’s grounds, it is accessible but distant. The statue faces away from the path that leads toward it and its arms open towards a forested valley rather than towards the town. This pose is perhaps intentional, as the town of Eureka Springs, historically a queer tourist destination, is still described as “a true pocket of tolerance and diversity” in the often discriminatory Bible Belt. The day I saw the statue was a hot and sunny Sunday. No staff members were around, but a few families and elderly couples (likely tourists, based on their Idaho and Ohio license plates) posed for pictures with the giant Jesus. Nevertheless, the statue is not entirely benign. Indecline’s comparison of the statue to a billboard accurately reflects the propagandistic nature of both the statue and the other attractions at The Great Passion Play.
Politics at the Sacred Projects: The Founding
The Christ of the Ozarks is a crude monument to the ego and misdirected zeal of propagandist and politician Gerald L. K. Smith, the man who commissioned the statue. During his lifetime, Smith was known as “America’s most vicious anti-Semite.” He published a “rabidly reactionary” periodical called The Cross and the Flag and was a notorious rabble-rouser, racist, and demagogue. Luckily for America, Smith never quite achieved the power he aspired to. Destructively insecure throughout his life, Smith’s biographer notes that, “desperate to ensure his work would survive him, he constructed for himself a memorial of mortar and stone,” and that “masquerading as a monument to Christ, Smith intended it in reality as a monument to himself” (Jeansonne 205). In his final years, Smith sought to use his Eureka Springs projects to forever link his name to that of Jesus. Today, the statue serves as Smith’s outsized tombstone. He is buried mere feet from its base.
Using an oratorical skill honed in the pulpit, Smith could drum up supporters wherever he found a crowd. He entered politics in the service of democratic “Dictator of Louisiana” Huey Long, but after Long’s assasination, Smith’s politics shifted. He founded the Christain Nationalist Crusade, a political organization that attempted to gather a base of poor Americans, with hate as the primary unifier. His politics were right-wing, Anti-Roosevelt, anti-communist, and at times aligned with fascism. Smith was regarded in his own time as an extremist; he perpetuated conspiracy theories, “oversimplified complex issues, created suspicion and divided families” (Jeansonne 217). A typical speech blended nationalist and religious buzzwords (“You give me Santa Claus and the Bible and the Constitution and the Flag…”) to whip a crowd into a fervor while providing little concrete content.
Upon moving to his Eureka Springs retirement home, Smith began construction on his so-called “Sacred Projects.” Starting with the statue, he then added other attractions, resulting in the establishment of a “Christian theme park” that today includes The Great Passion Play (the staff of which manages the park), a “Sacred Arts Museum,” a petting zoo, biblical reenactments, a recreation of Jerusalem’s city wall and more.
Smith’s “Sacred Projects” were controversial from their inception. He fought his opponents over state funding for road repairs, citing religious discrimination, and defended himself vehemently in the media. 45 years after his death, controversy remains. In a conspiracy-laden video criticizing Indecline’s banner, one fundamentalist Christian noted that he sees the statue as a violation of Exodus 20:4, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” Indecline noted the political past of the statue in their statement, writing “It was the brainchild of a man named Gerald K. Smith, a religious activist and Nazi sympathizer, who founded the America First Party,” and the group further suggested that “maybe Jesus never intended to be a statue, nor a billboard.”
Beyond these theological objections, the statue has been criticized for its design. While Smith, ever the propagandist, “proclaimed that the Christ of the Ozarks was more beautiful than Michelangelo’s Jesus in the Pieta,” critics described the statue as “a milk carton with a tennis ball stuck on top, or Willie Nelson in a dress.”
Politics at the Sacred Projects Today
Even long after Smith’s death, the biggest draw of all the “Sacred Projects” has continued to be The Great Passion Play. Performed in a three-story, 550-foot-wide, 4,100 seat outdoor amphitheater near the Christ of the Ozarks statue by 250 volunteers, the play, modeled after the Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany, has been seen by more than 8 million people since 1968. While passion plays (performances of the crucifixion story), have a thousands of years old European theatrical history, Smith’s Great Passion Play serves “an overtly political goal,” linking “Christain piety to a specific regional identity and nationalistic vision in order to support an explicitly political form of engaged orthodoxy” (Stevenson 99, 104).
This linking of Christianity and American nationalism in The Great Passion Play is accomplished in part by a conscious decision on the part of Smith and the play’s original director, Robert Hyde, to cast actors with “Christian sounding voices” (Stevenson 106). While this term is seemingly meaningless — there are Christain people all over the world with an incredible linguistic diversity — Jill Stevenson argues that the resultant “local, regional sound” that the 2010 cast continued to embody, reappropriates the ‘Southern sound’ to “validate” the identity of spectators from the region while further strengthening the “prevalent cultural association between Southern accents and the Bible Belt.”
The pre-recorded voices on the passion play soundtrack encourage spectators who identify with the accents to “re-experience a certain nostalgic, idealized American past of shared faith and common values” (Stevenson 107).
The nationalist political goals of the play are further supported by the other attractions on the grounds. These attractions have changed as the political and cultural concerns of the religious right have evolved, even including, at one time, a Creationist “Museum of Earth History.” When I visited this summer, displays included a fragment of the Berlin wall, a liberty bell replica, and an Israeli bomb shelter. Installed in 2015, the bomb shelter is meant to build sympathy for the Zionist movement, illustrating a major shift towards Israel in the politics of the religious right since the days of Smith’s anti-Semitic anti-Zionism. It also serves as an advertisement. The company that makes bomb shelters for Israel markets them to passion play visitors as tornado shelters.
The blending of American and Christian iconography in the service of political goals at The Great Passion Play extends to abortion. An advertisement for the “Sacred Arts Museum” features one of the paintings from the museum’s collection, a seek-and-find by Jack E. Dawson in which the folds of a torn American flag conceal a fetus, people praying, and the Twin Towers. In the painting, the flag is being mended by the nail-scarred hands of Jesus. This overlaying of ‘patriotic’ and Christian imagery is not accidental or hidden. It is part of the draw for all of the Great Passion Play attractions.
The “Sacred Projects” are not frozen in time as a museum to what Smith’s ego led him to create. They have been continuously updated in response to conservative political trends and the changing sympathies of right-wing Christian Nationalists. The attendees of The Great Passion Play and visitors to The Christ of the Ozarks statue are self-selected, but the experience at the “Sacred Projects” site is designed to affirm the compatibility of Christianity and American Nationalism as a political and religious blended identity.
Far from desecrating a holy place, Indecline’s banner only served to re-politicize a site that has been political since its founding, and remains heavily politicized today.
The location of the banner makes it more controversial than if it were hung in an abortion-friendly state, or if it were hung with permission. Its size and newsworthiness make it more effective than a social media post or small-scale graffiti tag, and it prompted many donations to the Arkansas Abortion Support Network. Perhaps then, the banner should be seen as a successful activist gesture. The choice to declare “God Bless Abortions” at The Christ of The Ozarks statue, a monument built by a demagogue who tried to weaponize bigotry, and which remains a site of propaganda, is a way of standing against hypocrisy. While the banner’s shock value makes it unlikely to inspire anyone who actively advocates for the criminalization of abortion to change their minds, it demonstrates the urgency with which Indecline intended to convey the message.
In the most generous reading, Indecline’s banner moves the conversation into the framework evangelicals use to define and defend their objectives, opening doors for potential conversations. Referring back to God, the phrase on the banner could be read almost prayerfully. However, the group’s antagonistic posturing prevents productive discourse from taking place. Indecline somewhat consciously plays into the role of an abortion-loving heathen, letting critics rail and uploading the most crazed-sounding backlash to their Instagram feed as a self-congratulatory joke at the expense of those they successfully horrified.
Artist activists design protest actions like this banner to bring attention to performative morality, incongruities, and hypocrisies. Groups like Indecline function as cultural commentators and play a critical role in driving public introspection and debate. Consensus, then, is not always the immediate goal of art activism. While it might be abrasive to some, the Indecline banner represents a “counter-politicization” of an extremely political site that in the guise of religion strengthens support for right-wing political goals. Now, as laws change to increase restrictions, the abortion debate remains stagnant and polarized. Banner aside, part of moving forward will involve reckoning with religious nationalism, a harmful force, but one that has a long history in the United States, and can still be manipulated by the power-hungry.
Stevenson, Jill. Sensational Devotion, Chapter 4, “The ‘Great Passion Play’ and Evangelical Blends.” University of Michigan Press, 2013.
Jeansonne, Glen. Gerald L. K. Smith. Yale University Press, 1988.