Elmer Gantry: A Satire of American Evangelism

For some reason, I decided to punish myself by reading all of Sinclair Lewis’s major works. I first encountered this fiery, re-haired, tornado-of-a-writer in my survey of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels. He looms large over American literature as the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, though he is often overshadowed by the Hemingways and Faulkners to come. Sinclair Lewis dedicates Elmer Gantry, the fourth of his six major novels, to H.L. Mencken “with profound admiration.” Mencken was a biting satirist and Nietzschean writer, and Elmer Gantry is a clear lampoon of religion in American. Clearly, the two writers –H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis– share a close kinship.

In the character of Elmer Gantry we might see any number of religious businessmen in the United States –Billy Graham, Joel Osteen, Pat Robertson, as well as scandal-makers like Ted Haggard or Jim Bakker. And even though Elmer Gantry predates the age of television, we can only speculate as to how Sinclair Lewis might have incorporated televangelism into Reverend Gantry’s schemes.

Elmer Gantry is a study in unprincipled hypocrisy. Sinclair Lewis researched this book by traveling through Kansas City and witnessing no less than fifteen different preachers upon whom he based the character of Elmer Gantry, though he goes out of his way to announce that “no character in this book is the portrait of an actual person.” In the novel, Elmer Gantry is a wayward simpleton. He drinks heavily and womanizes while serving as football captain at Terwillinger College alongside his best friend and college roommate, Jim Lefferts, a freethinker who pushes Gantry to read the likes of Thomas Paine. Nevertheless, Gantry is pushed to attend Sundays at the Baptist church despite his own moral failings “…he had resisted his mother’s desire that he to become a preacher. He would have to give up his entertaining vices, and with wide-eyes and panting happiness he was discovering more of them every year” (505). Gantry’s mother expects him to grow up and become a good Christian in the American marketplace. In order to appease both his mother and his best friend, Gantry makes a plan to convert Jim so that he might “yield to the mystic fervor.” Elmer Gantry then publicly and flamboyantly professes his sins, desirous of adulation and attention, longing for popularity, hoping for a successful career after graduation, delighted by heaps of ecstatic “hallelujahs” and “amens” while he announces his faux conversion. His concerns are always of his own self-interest. Consider the following passage as he considers whether not to become a preacher:

“Where could Elmer find a profession with a better social position than the ministry –thousands listening to him–invited to banquets and everything. So much easier than– Well, not exactly easier; all ministers worked arduously– great sacrifices–constant demands on their sympathy– heroic struggle against vice– but same time, elegant and superior work, surrounded by books, high thoughts, and the finest ladies in the city or country as the case might be. And cheaper professional training than law…” (540).

Much like the shallow clerics in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Elmer Gantry pursues a sturdy career in the seminary rather than pursuing a law degree (much to his mother’s delight) however he soon engages in sexual indiscretions that would make Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones blush, thus Gantry (or “Brother Gantry” as he is known around the Mizpah Theological Seminary) is unceremoniously thrown out of school, especially after having shown up drunk to church. From here, he bounces between sales jobs before developing a romantic relationship with a well-known traveling evangelist named Sharon Falconer (a caricature of Aimee Semple McPherson). As a notable charlatan, Sharon Falconer performative business takes her traveling throughout the Midwest, claiming to heal the sick, and running up extravagant tabs at local hotels, while Gantry serves as her assistant and business manager. But soon a fire breaks out during one of her wild, raucous sermons. Her tabernacle catches fire while she engages in delusion –she attempts to persuade her attendees that faith will protect them from the rising flames. Those who are smart, run for the doors of the church, while the rest burn to death (an interesting metaphor for Sinclair Lewis’s unsubtle portrayal of American Christianity). Falconer dies in the fire leading Gantry to take up his own business as a preacher. Everywhere, people seem upbeat and enthusiastic about his profit-friendly brand of Christian preaching, even if it is a personal struggle for himself. More than anything, we see this type of preaching little more than a business akin to the trickery of snake oil salesmen. Reverend Gantry settles down in the fictional Midwestern town of Zenith, Winnemac (a place which is seated midway between Pittsburgh and Chicago, and also appears in Sinclair Lewis’s other major works). He ultimately fails as an independent evangelist and so he turns to new age ideas like “New Thought” occultism and “Cosmic Vibrations” and so on. He even turns to various get-rich scams like theological prosperity doctrines akin to contemporary preachers like Joel Osteen and Deepak Chopra. Some observers today might call these preachers little more than self-serving grifters. At any rate, Reverend Gantry blends these new age theories with Christian theology as he preaches of the coming Judgment Day until the newspapers catch wind of his numerous scandals but in the end he escapes reputational destruction and continues to propound his piety for his Christian brand of American nationalism.

In a country renowned for religiously-motivated bannings of everything from The Beatles to Harry Potter, it goes without saying that Elmer Gantry caused quite a stir and found itself on any number of banned books lists. Elmer Gantry was banned in Boston and other cities, and it was denounced from pulpits across the United States. Despite all this calamity, Elmer Gantry was a bestseller and it was made into a 1960 film starring Burt Lancaster (which I have yet to see) and the likes of H. G. Wells used Lewis’s portrayals of American culture in Elmer Gantry to form the background of his syndicated newspaper articles called “The New American People,” though he also traveled through the country, visiting with people like Huey Long and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The rampant materialism of American culture plays well for selfish fools like Elmer Gantry, but we would do well to be wary of the hollow Elmer Gantrys of our world.

Lewis, Sinclair. Elmer Gantry. Library of America Edition (Hardcover), New York, 2002.

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