The wickedest man in Eureka Springs: Gerald L.K. Smith of the Great Passion Play

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Gerald L.K. Smith was, by all accounts, a wicked man. When he retired to Eureka Springs and in 1964 began construction of a planned religious theme park on his own property, to be called "Sacred Projects," he did so from the perspective of a long and checkered career -- and that's putting it mildly.

In 1929, Smith was national organizer for U.S. Sen. Huey P. Long of Louisiana, an FDR rival whose "Share Our Wealth" society advocated curing the woes of the Great Depression by proposing minimum and maximum limits on household wealth and income. Smith resigned his ministry to work full-time recruiting members to the society.

(FDR eventually recognized the threat and adopted enough of the planks of the "Share Our Wealth" platform to diffuse its rival popularity.)

Following Long's assassination in 1935, Smith took over the organization for a while. It was at this point that he began his public slide into ugliness. He became an ally of Father Charles Coughlin, the infamous Catholic priest and anti-Semitic radio broadcaster who was eventually shut down for hate-mongering.

Think Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck if they were openly anti-Semites.

Unlike Huey Long, who had been relatively tolerant on racial issues, Smith took the "Share Our Wealth" movement in the direction of white supremacy. As European tensions rose with the ascendancy of the Nazi party in Germany, Smith tried to form an alliance with the non-interventionist America First Committee, but its leaders spurned him because of his anti-Semitism and racism.

In 1944, he became a member of William Dudley Pelley's pro-Nazi Silver Shirts organization, which was patterned after Hitler's brown shirts.

After World War II, he lobbied for decades for the release of all Nazi war criminals convicted at the Nuremberg trials. That list included all the Big Bad Guys except Hitler, who of course committed suicide to avoid capture: Martin Borrmann, Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Albert Speer and many others.

He was too far to the right even for the late Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, which is an amazing statement all on its own.

He was called a "professional anti-Semite and lunatic nationalist" by the Anti-Defamation League.

One of his last political activities, in the mid-1950s, was a campaign against the Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act, which he denounced as being part of a Communist plot "to hospitalize and brainwash Americans." In fact, it was a bipartisan federal effort to improve mental health care to residents of Alaska, which was still a territory at the time. The bill passed despite Smith and other opponents.

The reason for this 400-word plunge into Wikipedian history is to explain the ambivalence some people may feel on hearing the news the news that the Great Passion Play is on the verge of shutting its doors after 40-plus years of entertaining the masses in its 4,000-plus-seat amphitheater.

For all the good this event may have done since 1968 -- there's no way to know how many have found God through the experience of this show -- it was in fact started by a man who was, to quote the subtitle of a biography of his, a "minister of hate."

Perhaps good can come from evil. After all, Saul of Tarsus found a change of career after an experience on the road to Damascus, the results of which are still prolific today.

Maybe the Passion Play was Smith's way to make up for his politics. Maybe he found wisdom in his retirement. But his was a life lived on paper, and records still exist.

We cannot define evil without discussing what is good, and the long-running play has been a good thing for our town and its economy and people.

It is important not to forget, however -- not to gloss over the warts and scabs and lumps of our history. We leave the whitewashing for the spin doctors whose job it is to sell the sizzle.

And Eureka certainly has plenty of that, with or without a man like Gerald L.K. Smith.