To fully appreciate the book Elmer Gantry it is important to keep in mind the context in which it was written. The year was 1926, a time of tremendous social and political upheaval arising in the wake of the First World War, which took the form of mounting economic woes, labor strikes, and violent racial confrontations. Fueling these tensions was an underlying intense cultural conflict in which a rapidly growing and increasingly vocal evangelical movement pitted itself against raucous, flamboyant, urban moderns, who personified what came to be known as The Jazz Age.These two movements fueled each other’s flames, and intensifed their rhetoric, raising the ante for both. The stakes were exceedingly high–nothing less than sin and salvation on the one hand vs. freedom and autonomy on the other.
As described by Barry Hankins in his charming book, Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties and Today’s Culture Wars, the character Elmer Gantry, a narcissistic, opportunistic and–more often than not–ruthless Baptist (and later Methodist) preacher, epitomized the rise and confluence of these two seemingly contradictory social phenomena, which actually fed upon each other. An adherent of the evangelical tradition, Elmer preached the literal Bible; called for the renunciation of sin and salvation through a personal Jesus; advocated prohibition; and lambasted evolution. At the same time, Gantry’ behavior and rhetoric typified the individualist, anything goes, attitude of the roaring twenties. In contrast to his pious, dour colleagues, Gantry was a very charismatic figure; his revival meetings were major productions, exceptionally well marketed and carefully scripted and staged with music, costumes, props and gimmicks, all aimed to capture the hearts of wayward sinners. And not withstanding the many betrayals he carried out; the people whose lives he ruined; and the scandals in which he became involved; Elmer Gantry always came out on top. This cynical, no less than satirical, outcome might explain why the book was banned in Boston, and why, after its publication, Sinclair Lewis was threatened with imprisonment and death.
I had not thought about Elmer Gantry for years, that is, not until, late in the summer, when my husband read a newspaper article to me about Rick Perry. Perry, a Governor, had called upon Texans to pray for rain in their drought-ridden state. Not soon thereafter, and not long before the Iowa Straw Poll, and his presidential announcement, he hosted a ‘day of prayer,’which had all of the trappings of an evangelical tent revival. With God in his heart, he then sought to intimidate Ben Bernanke, by threatening to make life difficult for him if he were ever to come to Texas. On hearing this, I felt that I had met this guy before. But where? Of course; here again was Elmer Gantry. Didn’t Perry and Gantry both have the same modis operandi –charming on the outside, ruthless within. As telling, both are evangelicals first, citizens second. Both put religion over reason, leaving it to God to solve complex world problems, such as climate change. Both employ the Bible to dispute evolution. Both wear their religious faith on the sleeves, but rarely live up to it in their pugnacious, arrogant dealings with other people. Driven by their individual fervor, they both leave no holds barred.
In writing his satires, Sinclair Lewis intended not only to expose the hypocrisy underlying American society and culture, but also to make the country sit up and take notice, especially of the rising threat of fascism. His book, It Can’t Happen Here, reminds Americans that they too are subject to over simplifications, false promises, and rhetorical sway. The book tells the tale of how a a charismatic character, much like Elmer Gantry, or Rick Perry for that matter, might employ inflammatory rhetoric in the name of ostensibly religious goals to fool the public and build up a popular platform that can undermine democracy in the United States. Athough It Can’t Happen Here was written with rise of European dictatorships in mind, it is still a provocative read that can better help us understand the politics of today.