'Elmer Gantry' still in pulpit

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  • Nathan Natas
    Nathan Natas

    'Elmer Gantry' still in pulpit
    Clergyman's sins timeless
    By Roger K. Miller
    Special to The Denver Post

    Sunday, July 21, 2002 - The preachers, televangelists and assorted other divines have been disappointingly quiet of late. No revelations of hideaway love nests, no money scandals or political-biblical humbuggery to titillate a jaded public yawning over accounts of which rock star or Hollywood demigod is doing what to whom.

    It was different only a few years back. Every week or so a Bakker or a Swaggart or a Robertson or a Falwell could be counted on to trip over his own morality and entertain us with a bathetic scene of righteousness curdled.

    Then again, maybe it's not them, but us - us and the weakening grip that religious authority, if not religion itself, has on our national life. The holy doctors are doubtless deflowering and defrauding the faithful at a rate just as rabid as ever, but what we as a society don't value we don't raise high, and what we don't raise high can't fall very far. Ergo: No fall for them, no shock - or, alas, amusement - for us.

    And, oh, how different it was a few decades back, when Sinclair Lewis published his "Elmer Gantry," which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. In those days, when Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson and other sanctified quacks had a death grip on our conscience, the fall from grace of one of their number would cause a public swoon that rocked from shore to shore.

    Which is precisely the sort of thing chronicled by "Elmer Gantry" - still in print and still holding up as a remarkably entertaining novel - though it is not the only, nor even the main, thing. Elmer is not an evangelist and the book is not an expose of evangelism or revivalism - at least, not primarily.

    Elmer is a church pastor - originally a Baptist, later a Methodist - and the book is a biting attack on how he and others had abused that calling. The association of "Elmer Gantry" with revivalism probably stems from the 1960 movie, which was based on only one section of the book dealing with Elmer's joining the tent revivalism of Sister Sharon Falconer.

    Submerged scandal

    Seven decades ago jealousy, greed, lust and other sins among the clergy scandalized the devout. Wherever possible it was kept hidden, and the shock of "Elmer Gantry" at the time was that it not only brought it into the open, but mocked it.

    There is vicious backbiting and name-calling. From his pulpit, Elmer disparages a brother minister (and former fellow seminarian) in an attempt to lure away a rich parishioner. A cynical musician in Sister Sharon's three-piece "orchestra" says, "These religious folks do seem to scrap amongst themselves."

    There is sex. Elmer tends a whole garden of fleshly delights, a garden that some of his fellow preachers also cultivate. At the end, Elmer almost comes a cropper with a church secretary but manages to emerge largely unscathed.

    There is money. Here is one philosophical area in which seven decades have brought scarcely a ripple of change: the idea that what God really wants is for you to prosper. Elmer insists on the "good, hard, practical, dollars-and-cents value of Christ in Commerce." When temporarily out of the church, he peddles New Thought or Prosperity Thinking, a secular version of this same line of goods.

    And still further: the self-righteous desire to set the moral tone of the nation, which has flared brightly again in our day. For himself, Elmer has the farcical ambition of becoming the chief moral director of America.

    Fretful flocks, eager to explain away the straying of their shepherds, blame it all on outsiders, especially the press, a form of scapegoating not unheard of even now. "The rumors," Lewis writes, "were inspired by the devil and spread by saloon-keepers and infidels."

    Satire never at a loss

    Lewis satirizes all of this in a wickedly funny novel. And more: the religionists' anti-intellectualism - Elmer's church-affiliated college had a "standard of scholarship equal to the best high schools." And hypocrisy and double standards - Sharon condemns dancing but loves to dance.

    And poor old Elmer himself, a chief yahoo in Mencken's tribe of boobus Americanus, with calluses on their knuckles and hair upon their brows. He cannot let religion alone. In the seminary, though he is repelled by what he sees as the boredom of the church, still he wants to be a part of it. After he is thrown out of the seminary, he becomes a salesman, but he yearns to get back into preaching.

    Blame it on Lewis. The objects of his attacks were also objects of his desire. As a grown man, during drunken revels he could reel off verse after verse of old hymns remembered from his youth.

    Today we might say he was conflicted. And if we did, and he were alive, he'd mock us for our pretentiousness.

    Roger K. Miller, a former book editor of the Milwaukee Journal, is a freelance reviewer and writer for several publications.
    By Sinclair Lewis
    Signet, 432 pages, $7.95 paperback

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