Hot Springs is the town where you gamble on the ponies, tread in the steps of gangsters taking the waters, and where a club on one of its most busy streets advertises "Strip Karaoke." Hot baths, massages, the pleasures of the body are part of its soul; "Prairie Home Companion" humorist Garrison Keillor called it the "loose buckle on the Bible Belt."
But there's another spring bubbling up in the so-called Spa City, one that's bringing holy water to the surface. The Tea Party is steeping its message in it; the Republicans are sipping it, the court system is awash in it. When an anti-Semitic remark was casually tossed off in a recent election, many shoulders simply shrugged.
When a Republican like Cliff Jackson, raised in the Assembly of God Church, and best known as Bill Clinton's nemesis, thinks Hot Springs is moving toward theocracy, you've got to wonder. Is he right?
Jackson believes what's happening in Hot Springs, which has a thriving evangelical community, is part of a larger movement to "usher in Jesus Christ" to take dominion over secular government, to use holy writ as overriding law — a goal not dissimilar, he said, to the Taliban's.
"Goggle-eyed" was the way Jackson described his reaction to Mayor Ruth Carney's remarks after a day spent last fall with Republican theologian David Barton. Asked by a reporter from the Hot Springs Sentinel Record what she'd taken away from Barton's address to Republican elected officials, Carney, the wife of the Nazarene pastor who had invited Barton to town, said she'd learned that where the Bible had spoken, there was no need for man to create law. "Marriage was from the Bible, so when man takes it and re-creates the marriage statute, then it's against what was biblical-based," she told Hot Springs' daily newspaper. "That was just one little example of making laws to define something that has already been defined."
She was no doubt thinking of laws that allow same-sex marriage. But Jackson, in a letter to the editor of the Sentinel Record that the paper decided not to publish, wrote, "Which Biblical verses would she have us follow? Polygamy? Women as chattel? Divorce only for adultery? Gays an 'abomination'? Verses where God approves concubines? Women being silent and submissive to men? Having sex with one's daughters?"
To a reporter, he said, "I asked her who's going to do the concubinage dissolution?" Where are the ecclesiastical courts?
The answer to that last question might be at the Garland County Courthouse. More on that later.
Not a single Democrat won in Garland County's House and county races last November. It was a clean sweep, turning out, for example, incumbent state Rep. Gene Shelby, a leader in the hospital trauma system movement in 2009 who was seeking a seat in the Senate. Voters even chose a dead Republican over a living Democrat in a race for the House District 24 seat.
Elected by a wide margin to represent House District 26 — one that encompasses a part of Garland County south of Hot Springs — was Loy Mauch, an Abraham Lincoln-despising secessionist who believes the government will one day dose our water supply with lithium to lift our spirits and statin drugs to lower our cholesterol.
It was a bad year for Democrats the state and nation over, but Garland County's most conservative organizations — the Tea Party, the Watchmen, the Garland Good Government Group — are organized, active and can take a good part of the credit. Their number, some suggest, includes the many well-off retirees that move to Hot Springs and Garland County and believe they know what's best for the community, which largely parallels what's best for them personally. Or at least that's how some people see it, though they declined to be quoted. Of the conservative groups, only the Watchmen of Garland County is overtly religious. The group was founded in 2008, according to its mission statement, "for the purpose of educating the citizens of Garland County, Arkansas as to the objectiveness of the Pro-Gambling, Abortionists, and Homosexual communities in Hot Springs, Arkansas and Garland County Arkansas." Two of the founders of the Watchmen were Ken Carney, the mayor's husband and pastor of First Church of the Nazarene, and Hettie Lou Brooks, owner of Brookhill Ranch Summer Christian Camp. (As it happens, David Barton — whose vision of a Christian nation, former Gov. Mike Huckabee famously said, we should be forced to learn "at gunpoint" — sent his children to Brookhill, where every camper is "saved" at the conclusion of camp.)
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