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.

The Papacy: Alexander III, Frederick Barbarossa, and the Third Crusade (1181-1198)

The death of Pope Hadrian was met with a dramatic confrontation in the papal conclave as a cohort of cardinals were divided between successors. In the ensuing squabble behind the high altar at St. Peter’s, one cardinal named Octavian simply dashed for the papal throne and declared himself Pope Victor IV. It was a most silly coup that was nevertheless effective for a period until his support began to dwindle. An opposition party began to form around another cardinal named Roland who was then formally consecrated as the next pope –Alexander III. One of his first acts was to promptly excommunicate the antipope Victor IV, who then responded in turn by excommunicating the sitting pope, as well, and for the second time in three decades, there was a schism within the church.

To make matters worse, Frederick Barbarossa decided to recognize this ridiculous antipope Victor IV, thus pushing Alexander closer into the hands of William of Sicily. The pope then excommunicated Frederick! And then he promptly fled Rome for two years realizing he was without proper military defenses. As was universally the case with the papacy, the institution only served at the whims of its more powerful neighbors –namely, strong military empires with deep pockets. Alexander then exiled himself to France with the hopes of rallying a unified front against Frederick Barbarossa (it never truly materialized), meanwhile abroad in England, Henry II was having his notorious dispute with the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose vicious murder struck like lightning throughout the Christendom.

As fate would have it, the antipope Victor was eventually banished from Rome and the Senate invited Alexander to return, but while the antipope Victor died in pain and poverty, Frederick Barbarossa could not bring himself before Alexander. He supported yet another antipope, Paschal III. Frederick rallied a massive contingent of German forces and conquered his way through cities, climbing over the Alps, until he finally stormed the gates of Rome only to find that St. Peter’s had been converted into a military garrison with wide trenches and outposts placed at each corner. For eight days the papacy held out in the basilica against a massive invading army, until the germans finally stormed the basilica. Per John Julius Norwich, “Never had there been such a desecration of the holiest shrine in Europe” (159). When the fog of war finally lifted, St. Peter’s was in ruins. The high altar was smeared with blood and slaughtered corpses lay strewn about the church –all of this came from the crowned emperor of Western Christendom. All was not well in the West. Pope Alexander escaped the city disguised as an ordinary pilgrim. He made his way to the coast. He was discovered sitting on a beach awaiting a ship (luckily the pope was discovered by friends). in the meantime, the antipope Paschal reigned in Rome.

This was the height of Frederick’s career –conquering Northern Italy, invading Rome, and installing a new pope– but as pride goeth before a fall, Frederick now set his sights on finally subduing Sicily. In only a week’s time, his fortunes turned and his army was decimated by inclement weather and a brutal plague that mercilessly killed scores of soldiers each day. Forced to turn back, he was forced to leave piles of rotting corpses all throughout Tuscany while facing unfriendly towns throughout the land. And the Alps was equally as treacherous. Frederick’s humiliation was made complete when he was forced to retreat home in the guise of a common peasant. Nevertheless, the pestilence raged throughout Rome, leaving the banks of the Tiber filled to the brim with sick and dying people. Suddenly, Paschal and Frederick were blamed for bringing divine wrath on the city and Alexander was yet again welcomed back as the true pope, however this being the third such occasion, Alexander declined the invitation from Rome. He was by now disgusted with the city and decided to conduct the papal business elsewhere –it would be another eleven years before he would again enter the city of Rome.

By 1170, Frederick Barbarossa was finally ready for peace with the pope. They met in Venice where he was to officially recognize the pope, make peace with the Lombard League, and in return the pope would recognize Frederick’s empress and other such concessions. It was a supreme achievement for Alexander, who was by now in his 70s, but he still had more to accomplish. In 1179, he convened the Third Lateran Council which established a new decree governing papal elections. The elections were to be restricted to the College of Cardinals with a two-thirds majority (for the most part, these same rules apply today). When Alexander died in 1181, his body was returned to Rome for burial, even though this was the city he despised above all others, and before he was buried in St. Peter’s, hoards of Roman citizens welcomed him in kind by tossing filth at his bier.

John Julius Norwich claims that alongside Innocent III, “Alexander III was one of the greatest of the medieval popes” (165). Though Innocent’s time in the sun would come soon enough, it was actually seventeen years and five popes which separated Alexander from Innocent. All of these five popes had to contend with the Hohenstaufen emperors (Barbarossa’s empire) and the rabble-rousing Roman Senate. The first, Lucius III, left Rome after finding it too hot (he died in Verona), and he was followed by Urban III, who was forced under the heel of Frederick Barbarossa. Before he could excommunicate the rebellious emperor, however, Urban promptly died of shock –apparently he had just heard the news that Saladin had captured Jerusalem. It was left to his successor, Gregory VIII (nearly eighty years old), to muster the forces of Christendom on a new Crusade, but Gregory died a mere eight weeks later. The cause of the Third Crusade was then taken up by Pope Clement III alongside Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, Richard Couer-de-Lion of England, Philip Augustus of France, and William II “The Good” of Sicily (though he died at age thirty-six before he could embark on the Crusade). Unlike the others, Frederick elected to lead his army over an arduous land-march until they reached Calycadnus River near the town of Seleucia. Here, Frederick raced ahead of his troops to the flowing water but he was tragically never seen alive again. Perhaps he was swept into the current, or perhaps his aging body simply could not handle the cold water. Either way, he was fished out and found dead on the banks immediately by his men. Almost instantly, this spelled doom for the soldiers in the Holy Land.

The death of Frederick was, however, a deliverance for Clement III. Relations finally improved between Rome and Germany under its new ruler, Henry VI. This was despite the fact that the Third Crusade was another utter failure (though admittedly not a complete fiasco like the Second Crusade). Frederick’s death sent many of his princes turning back for home and defections were common. Those who pressed on were brutally attacked in Syria. The limping survivors collapsed upon entering Antioch, and the cause of Third Crusade was only salvaged by the arrival of Richard and Philip but Jerusalem was unable to be recaptured. Pope Clement died and was instantly replaced by an elderly but distinguished deacon who was consecrated as Pope Celestine III. His brief tenure was plagued by the domineering personalities of Henry VI of the German Hohenstaufen dynasty (Frederick’s successor), as well as King Tancred of Sicily, and King Alfonso IX of León. Of these three, Henry proved the most difficult: he effectively bought his coronation by raising the money to free Richard I from captivity under Duke Leopold V of Austria, and his wife publicly gave birth to their only son, Frederick, in the little town of Jesi during his coronation. Shortly thereafter, Henry died of malaria while putting down a rebellion in Sicily. He was only thirty-two. A mere three months later, Pope Celestine, some sixty years his senior, also passed on. The man who was to follow him was one of the truly great popes to ever sit on the throne of St. Peter: Innocent III.

For this reading I used John Julius Norwich’s 2011 single volume history of the papacy Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2009 work of popular history, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.

The Papacy: The Second Crusade and An English Pope (1144-1159)

Ten years came and went, and in this decade there were no less than four popes –Celestine II, Lucius II, Eugenius (“Eugene”) III, and Anastasius IV. It was an era marked by constant infighting between the two chief ruling families of Rome (Frangipani and Pierleoni) as well as the continual rise of King Roger II in Sicily. Lucius II was publicly stoned to death (perhaps by accident) after allowing the Senate to be reinstated in Rome, while Eugenius was a gentle soul who was easily driven from Rome amidst the heat of battle. However, abroad the Crescent was now conquering the Cross, as Edessa in present-day Turkey fell to an Arab army under Imad ed-Din Zengi. Thus Pope Eugenius sought the help of Louis VII of France and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine to raise a Frankish army (Louis and Eleanor were soon to separate on grounds of sanguinity before she became Queen to one of England’s greatest kings and mother to two of England’s worst kings).

Per John Julius Norwich: “The Second Crusade was to turn out an ignominious fiasco. First, the Crusaders decided to attack Damascus –the only Arab state in the whole Levant hostile to Imad ed-Din and his son Nur ed-Din, who had by now succeeded him. As such, it could and should have been an invaluable ally of the Franks; by attacking it, they drove it straight into the arms of their enemy. Second, they pitched their camp along the eastern section of the walls, devoid alike of shade and water. Third, they lost their nerve. On July 28, 1148, just five days after the opening of the campaign, they gave the order for retreat” (140-141).

Meanwhile in Rome, there was a growing republican movement thanks to the teachings of Arnold of Brescia, an Augustinian monk from Lombardy. Naturally, the papacy fought this movement with all the vigor of the vicar. The pope was mostly barred from even entering Rome so he was forced to seek military aid from the Germans under the cousin of King Conrad, Frederick I (or “Frederick Barbarossa”), a man who “never forgot that he was the successor of Charlemagne and Otto the Great, and he made no secret of his determination to restore the empire to its former glory” (Norwich, 144). They came to an agreement, a papal military in exchange for the coronation of a new Holy Roman Emperor, however Eugenius died in 1153. He was succeeded by the elderly Anastius IV who also died about eighteen months later.

Anastasius IV was followed by an energetic yet disciplined Englishman named Nicholas Breakspar who assumed the title of Hadrian IV (sometimes Adrian IV) when he was made pope. He was a formidable man with no tolerance of Arnold of Brescia’s praise of anti-theocratic republicans, and so mere weeks into his tenure as the Holy See, Pope Hadrian IV did the unthinkable. He closed down all churches in Rome until the rioters, many of whom relied on church festivals for food, stormed the Senate and sent Arnold away in flight. Following this, Hadrian managed to earn the respect of Frederick Barbarossa, despite an uneasy relationship between the papacy and the German empire, but seeing as how the proponents of republicanism were mutual enemies of both the Germans and the establishment in Rome, Frederick was rather hastily crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope causing shockwaves throughout the city. Once again, the pope was driven out of Rome so he sought refuge among the Curia (the chief papal cabinet).

He proffered a delicate peace agreement with Sicily known as the Treaty of Benevento which needless to say outraged Barbarossa and his minions but it held the Byzantine Empire at bay. It was a fragile balance of relations between Germany, France, England, Sicily, and the Byzantines, and soon the aged pope was at his wits end. By 1159, he gave up the ghost under the immense pressure of his office.

I close this chapter with the following summary by John Julius Norwich: “Hadrian’s pontificate is hard to assess. He certainly towers over the string of mediocrities who occupied the Throne of St. Peter during the first half of the century, just as he himself is overshadowed by his magnificent successor. He left the Papacy stronger and more generally respected than he found it, but much of this success was due to its identification with the Lombard League; and he failed utterly to subdue the Roman Senate. He was pope for less than five years, but those years were hard and of vital importance to the Papacy, and the strain told on him. Before long his health had begun to fail, and with it his morale. He died embittered and disappointed –as all too many of predecessors had before him” (154).

For this reading I used John Julius Norwich’s 2011 single volume history of the papacy Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2009 work of popular history, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.

Star Trek: Season 2, Episode Nine “Metamorphosis”

Stardate: 3219.8 (2267)
Original Air Date: November 10, 1967
Writer: Gene L. Coon
Director: Ralph Senensky

“Immortality consists largely of boredom.”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Enterprise Galileo shuttlecraft is transporting Assistant Federation Commissioner Nancy Hedford (Elinor Donahue) so she can receive treatment for a rare and potentially lethal disease, Sukaro’s Disease. She was initially called upon by the Federation to prevent a war on Epsilon Canaris III. However, en route to a medical facility, the shuttlecraft encounters a strange energy field which Spock dubs “a cloud of ionized hydrogen, but with strong erratic electrical impulses.” They divert and land on a nearby asteroid, an iron-nickel planetoid.

Tragically, the Galileo shuts down due to some unknown force and across the craggy desert of this barren wasteland a voice can be heard saying, “haallooo!” This man is soon revealed to be Zefram Cochrane (Glenn Corbett), a marooned scientist who crash-landed on this asteroid after leaving his home on Alpha Centauri, and curiously enough, he is actually the inventor of the Warp Drive. He disappeared some 150 years prior. He was an old man when he fled Alpha Centauri and decided he wanted to die in space but he encountered this strange beam of light he refers to as “The Companion” which has reversed his aging process. The Enterprise crewmen continue to see “The Companion” on this asteroid. Apparently, “The Companion” has brought the Galileo to this remote place in order to unite Commissioner Hedford with Zefram because he has grown lonely.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Hedford’s disease continues to grow worse. And “The Companion” begins attacking with the crewmen with electric shocks and by means of strangulation. Its only respite is being called forth by Zefram when he clears his mind in order to communicate with the being. Thankfully, the Enterprise has been searching for the Galileo under the helm of Scott, Uhura, and Sulu. However, their work is cut out for them –there are quite literally thousands of habitable planetoids in this quadrant!

Spock and Kirk devise a method of communication with “The Companion” which reveals a feminine voice, and they learn that she is a lover of Zefram. Kirk pleads with her to let the crew leave or else they will die, and he reasons that Zefram can never truly love her. “The Companion” then disappears in order to unite itself with Commissioner Hedford. She is now cured of her disease and approaches Zefram just in time for the crewmen to be rescued by the Enterprise. However, because Hedford/The Companion must remain on this planetoid to preserve her life force, and Zefram elects to remain behind with her. Kirk promises not tell anyone about what has happened to the legendary Zefram Cochrane. Bones asks Kirk about the war on Epsilon Canaris III, for which the Commissioner was initially summoned by Starfleet, however Kirk merely smirks and suggests Starfleet can find another woman to prevent the war.

What a momentous event it must have been for Kirk et al to encounter the original scientist who invented Warp Drive (The Next Generation crew also encounters Zefram Cochrane in the past in Star Trek: First Contact though in that situation Cochrane is played by James Cromwell). What might our experience be like if we had the opportunity to meet the scientists and inventors of our age: perhaps people like Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, Louis Pasteur, Thomas Edison, or Robert J. Oppenheimer?

I thought the idea of “The Companion” was intriguing –a bundle of unbridled energy with curiously for romantic inclinations. This is an alien being unlike most others we have encountered thus far in the series. And unlike others, “The Companion” has undergone a unique “metamorphosis” as the episode title suggests. It has decided to transform into a human in order to choose love against effective immortality. However, do we have any moral qualms about what happens to Commissioner Hedford? Are we sure this is truly her to choice to remain on the planetoid? Or is it the “Companion” half who dictates this choice? Even though Kirk pledges not to discuss his encounter with Zefram Cochrane, what of Commissioner Hedford? How will her absence ever be explained? And, most importantly, I echo Dr. Mccoy’s concerns about the war on Epsilon Canaris III, Kirk’s response that the Federation can simply find another woman to prevent that war (perhaps the opposite of Helen of Troy) is deeply unsatisfying.

A strange twist for me is when Zefram Cochrane decides to remain behind on this planetoid, despite the fact that a whole galaxy is likely waiting to bestow honors upon him for his scientific achievements (without which Starfleet would be neutered). Instead, he decides to live a quiet, anonymous life on this remote locale with a hybrid human-alien being as his paramour. I suppose one man’s paradise is another man’s hell. In all forms of life, people need a companion.

Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention the score in this episode. I was truly struck by this one by George Duning, it inspires a certain sense of place and wonder in this far away planetoid. I sometimes find myself nostalgic for these 1960s television musical accompaniments.

This episode was written by producer/writer Gene L. Coon (1924-1973), a key member of the creative team in the first and second seasons.

Director Ralph Senensky (1923- Present) is apparently still alive as I write this review making him nearly 100 years old. He directed many episodes of classic television including an episode of The Twilight Zone and six episodes of Star Trek.

Note: I’d like to acknowledge the passing of Nichelle Nichols (1932-2022) on the day that I write this review. She was a pioneer in many respects and will be greatly missed by many across the world.

Star Trek Trivia:

  • This is the first appearance in Star Trek of Zefram Cochrane, inventor/discoverer of Warp Drive and an important figure to the series. He later re-appeared in Star Trek: First Contact and in alter iterations, as well.
  • Diligent viewers have noted that Zefram Cochrane would have been born around 2030, though he appears considerably older in First Contact –a minor quibble among fans.
  • “The Companion” being was designed by future Star Wars Oscar-winner Richard Edlund.
  • The voice of “The Companion” was completed by Elizabeth Rogers, though uncredited for some reason. She later returned to the series twice as communications officer Lt. Palmer.
  • Commissioner Hedford wore a colorful scarf on the set which ironically matched the colors of “The Companion.” Apparently, it was an unplanned coincidence.

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