The Good Book

It has been almost 80 years since novelist Sinclair Lewis set his most iconic fictional creation, a hell-raiser turned hellfire preacher named Elmer Gantry, loose on an unsuspecting America. For a clergyman in his 70s, Gantry has proven to be remarkably hale and hearty. Op-ed writers and columnists lean continually on Lewis' parson to represent a uniquely American type: the fundamentalist hypocrite serving up corn pone and brimstone to promulgate a strict public morality.

The type was on its way to the margins in Lewis' day; the 1920s were when modernity won, if not in fact in the great heartland, at least in the larger self-image of a nation gorging itself on jazz, burlesque, motorcars, and bathtub gin. But the type -- the living, breathing Gantry, as it were -- is now back with a vengeance.

Take, for instance, the open letter written to President Bush by fundamentalist educator Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University, on the day after the election. When Jones declares, “In your re-election, God has graciously granted America -- though she doesn't deserve it -- a reprieve from the agenda of paganism,” and then argues that liberals despise the president “because they despise your Christ,” he is channeling the call for a national “crusade” that Gantry delivers as the closing flourish of the novel: “ … a crusade for complete morality and the domination of the Christian church through all the land. Dear Lord, thy work is but begun! We shall yet make these United States a moral nation!”

Elmer Gantry is sermonizing once again in the United States, and Lewis, once again, is relevant. He was, to be sure, an agnostic, and an intensely secular partisan whose rendering of the fundamentalist devout was brutal. But he was something else, too: He was a careful student and observer, and his method suggests a lesson for today's liberals as they grapple with these hard-shell literalists who are, incomprehensible as it may seem to them, their countrymen.

* * *

Elmer Gantry burst into American bookshops in 1927 and became the year's best-selling novel. It also, as Mark Schorer observes in his 1961 biography of Lewis, faced “wholesale municipal bans -- extended from Kansas City to Camden, from Boston to Glasgow.” At that time, America was less than two years removed from the greatest clash between the forces of fundamentalism and secularism it had seen to that time, the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial.” It was also on the cusp of an election in which religion and the public morals issue of the age, Prohibition, would play a major role.

Elmer Gantry is dedicated to Lewis' friend and booster H.L. Mencken, a writer who covered both the Scopes trial and the 1928 campaign between Republican Herbert Hoover and Democrat Al Smith. Looking back at Mencken's writing about that campaign today elicits a palpable shock of recognition. Update some context and swap Prohibition with gay marriage and Mencken might be filing from Cincinnati in November 2004 rather than Baltimore in November 1928:

I daresay the extent of the bigotry prevailing in America, as it has been revealed by this campaign, has astounded a great many Americans, and perhaps even made them doubt the testimony of their own eyes and ears. This surprise is not in itself surprising, for Americans of one class seldom know anything about Americans of other classes. What the average native yokel believes about the average city man is probably nine-tenths untrue, and what the average city man believes about the average yokel is almost as inaccurate … . This campaign … has brought bigotry out into the open, and revealed its true proportion. It has shown that millions of Americans, far from being free and tolerant men, are the slaves of an ignorant, impudent, and unconscionable clergy.

Mencken's verbal pyrotechnics are rough stuff to our contemporary ears. His sharp rhetoric flies in the face of the contemporary vogue for soft-pedaling any pungent talk about religion. Yet Mencken's America is precisely the one into which Lewis introduced his novel, and the author of Elmer Gantry proved to be at least as pugnacious as Mencken in dissecting American religion's role in public life.

Elmer Gantry drew its power from multiple wellsprings. Sinclair Lewis was among America's most controversial writers of that time, and his three previous novels published in that same decade -- Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), and Arrowsmith (1925) -- were immense critical and popular sensations. Elmer Gantry's brusqueness and brutality also played a role in its success. Main Street and Arrowsmith leavened their deadly satire on small-town America and the medical profession, respectively, with powerful doses of idealism. America's businessmen -- the main targets of Babbitt -- were slow to catch on to Lewis' harsh indictment of their values and mannerisms in that novel (though they later did, and responded with fury).

Elmer Gantry, on the other hand, was intended by its author to stir the pot from the get-go. Lewis earned that rumpus by pulling back the veil of America's tabernacles and revealing manifold sins: hucksterism, fakery, careerism, carnality, and, most damning of all, an explicit claim of a hollow core at the center of many preachers' own faith. An outraged clergy and public didn't take Elmer Gantry lying down. Schorer's biography notes that Lewis was “invited” to his own lynching in Virginia. In a more recent biography of the writer, Rebel from Main Street, Richard Lingeman relates that fundamentalist evangelist Billy Sunday “called on God to strike Lewis dead.”

Sunday's uncharitable wish for Lewis' death is closely linked to one of the most notorious, and misunderstood, events in Lewis' public career. As Lingeman notes, Lewis gave a talk at a Kansas City church forum in which he dismissed the notion that God would strike down an agnostic for lack of belief. As he did so, he told those gathered that “if God is striking agnostics down, then let him strike me down.” Fifteen minutes later, Lewis pointed out to the gathered audience that he was still standing. Newspapers inflated the incident into a tall tale that, says Lingeman, “portrayed the infidel Lewis as daring God to strike him dead as a publicity stunt.” But such publicity, even before the book's release, helped to account for the splash that Elmer Gantry made in the United States.

* * *

But here's the interesting question: Just what was Sinclair Lewis doing talking with a church group anyway, or preaching from midwestern pulpits, as he did numerous times in the year before he wrote Elmer Gantry?

The preaching was part of a total immersion into American religious experience that Lewis undertook before writing the novel. He moved to Kansas City, lived with preachers, attended multiple religious services each week, and amassed a large library on American religion. These efforts were augmented by weekly discussion meetings that the author held with a wide range of Kansas City ministers, which came to be known as Sinclair Lewis' Sunday School Class. Lewis used these meetings to grill clergymen on matters doctrinal and pastoral. The nitty-gritty info that Lewis gleaned is evident in the novel in moments such as this bull session between Baptist seminary students:

“Well, I know why I came here,” said Don Pickens. “My dad sent me!”

“So did mine!” complained Horace Carp. “But what I can't understand is: Why are any of us in an ole Baptist school? Horrible denomination -- all these moldy barns of churches, and people coughing illiterate hymns, and long-winded preachers always springing a bright new idea like ‘All the world needs to solve its problems is to get back to the gospel of Jesus Christ.' The only church is the Episcopal! Music! Vestments! Stately prayers! Lovely architecture! Dignity! Authority! Believe me, as soon as I can make the break, I'm going to switch over to the Episcopalians. And then I'll have a social position, and be able to marry a nice rich girl.”

Lewis' immersion and careful quizzing of primary sources also yielded the truth that Americans do not separate religion from their lives in the same way that their government separates church and state. Among the most convincing features of Elmer Gantry is the way that religion suffuses everyday life in the towns and cities, down to each community's sports and courtship and commerce, before it ever reaches its politics. Lewis' account of how Elmer -- a wayward collegiate football captain with an atheist roommate and the nickname “Hell-cat” -- is converted and called to the ministry relies on no spectacular epiphany. Rather, this task is accomplished via a fistfight with hecklers who taunt a preacher classmate and a badgering home visit from a football star turned evangelist who calls Elmer out for Jesus:

“Yes, sir, the boys all been telling me what a dandy fine fellow you are, and what a corking athlete, and what an A-1 gentleman. They all say there's just one trouble with you, Elmer lad.”

“Eh?”

“They say you're a coward.”

“Heh? Who says I'm a coward?”

Judson Roberts swaggered across from the bed, stood with his hand on Elmer's shoulder. “They all say it, Hell-cat! You see it takes a sure-enough dyed-in-the-wool brave man to be big enough to give Jesus a shot at him, and admit he's licked when he tries to fight God!”

It is impossible to grasp, for instance, the appeal of today's Promise Keepers movement without understanding the relationship between religion and masculinity that Lewis depicts so skillfully here.

* * *

At a moment when creationism has crept back into America's classrooms and the coded language of “values” has permeated the nation's political discourse, renewed interest in the rhetoric employed by Lewis and Mencken to win an earlier war on fundamentalism in America is natural. Yet progressives will get only half the lesson of Elmer Gantry if they use this language without a modicum of self-education. Lewis grounded his attacks in an intimate knowledge of fundamentalism's strengths and weaknesses.

The astonishment of the media (including religion reporters) at the role that “values” played in the 2004 election -- not to mention the self-flagellation among many liberals for their failure to “speak to” religious America -- suggests that there is a huge learning curve to be mastered. Perhaps it's time for progressives to get back to the books, Elmer Gantry among them.

Richard Byrne's writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, Washington Post Book World, Time.com, the Boston Phoenix, and New York Press.

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