After 60-some years watching over his freeridin’ flock, it looked as though the “Big Mountain Jesus” statue at Whitefish Resort had met his end of days. But Montana locals rallied to spare their beloved saviour. Writer Derrick Knowles finds out why.

Given that 40 per cent of Americans believe the real Jesus will return by the year 2050, it was no surprise when evangelical activists went ballistic over a 2012 US Forest Service decision not to renew the permit for an existing six-foot-tall statue known as “Big Mountain Jesus” at Montana’s Whitefish Mountain Resort. A Save-Big-Mountain-Jesus-Statue Facebook page popped up overnight and racked up thousands of likes despite occasional xenophobic rants. An Occupy-Big-Mountain-Jesus protest was planned. All hell seemed about to break loose until the federal government reconsidered and opened a public comment period.

Now there's a fella you can truly lean on. Photo by the Missoulian.
Now there’s a fella you can truly lean on. Photo by the Missoulian.

The faithful rallied around the 95,000 public comments, most from the pro-Jesus camp who defended the baby-blue-robe-draped statue that had stood arms outstretched and unassailed at the top of Chair Two since 1954. Erected as a World War II memorial by local veterans who had seen similar shrines in the Italian Alps, Big Mountain Jesus became a beloved slopeside icon over the years, with a devoted following of secular skiers and snowboarders who use the statue as a meeting spot and reliable selfie backdrop.

With public opinion on its side, the Forest Service opted to renew the statue’s permit later that year, eliciting cheers from statue disciples and legal threats from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a group that challenges public displays of religiosity. But for many locals, like Whitefish Mountain Resort pass holder Steve Shea, the fight to save the statue had nothing to do with its religious significance; it was about defending a revered mountain artifact. He says, “All you have to do is hop on the chairlift and ask someone[about the controversy], and you’re likely to hear ‘Leave the fucking Jesus alone!’”

With legal options exhausted, the FFRF declined to press the issue all the way to the US Supreme Court, fearing a public crucifixion. By the close of the 2016 ski season, Jesus freaks could rejoice: Big Mountain Jesus lives on.