In recent years a renewed interest has arisen concerning how powerful entities are perceived by others. Academics are asking how the United States is seen by other nations. Corporations are trying to improve their public images because, well, let’s face it, it effects the bottom line. The same thing applies, but with a difficult kind of finessing, to churches. Part of the difficulty is that churches declare that they have the truth. Backing down from this in the face of public opinion more or less scuttles any claims being made. Thus I’d been curious about Elmer Gantry for some time. Sinclair Lewis’s novel of the self-absorbed, arrogant clergyman who believes in no god other than his own desires, is considered a modern classic. Written during the height of the follies of the Scopes Monkey Trial and Prohibition, as the Fundamentalist movement was just getting started, Lewis used dark satire to try to put the self-righteous in their place. I’d known the name Elmer Gantry from many other media references, so I figured it was time to see who he was.
Going into the novel I had few preconceived notions. Gantry, I knew, would be a hypocrite from the start, but beyond that, cultural references don’t give many hints. Although Lewis’s well-known wit shines through from time to time, on a whole the novel is a distressing read. I suppose it’s the mark of a great writer that you can despise a character so, but really, Elmer is led on his path, indeed, encouraged, by those who know him and whose only zeal is conversion for conversion’s sake. A womanizing, athletic, hard-drinking student, Gantry is where many young men want to be. The campus ministries, however, keep after him until he realizes what all clergy know at some level—there is power in being able to manipulate people by religion. As portrayed by Lewis, Gantry does try, once or twice, really to believe. His cynical and selfish nature, however, are too difficult for him to overcome and he therefore employs them in all his relationships as he climbs the corporate, ecclesiastical ladder.
There is really no triumphalism here, with the society discovering and ousting the charlatan. Indeed, as the book ends, the Reverend Doctor Elmer Gantry dodges a serious threat to his career only to be appointed to one of the most influential churches in New York, poised to go on to even greater things. Trying to find the blame in the novel, however, is not a simple task. Gantry is all too easily led. He follows his base desires deftly and confidently. He knows a mark when he sees one. Throughout his ministerial life, however, he is encouraged and prodded onward to success. Most ministers, in my experience, are burdened with conscience. I’m sure a few slip through with their own agendas, but the working clergy are nothing like the protagonist to this tale. Lewis focuses on the worst offenders. Those who are in it for the power, should they read Elmer Gantry, would find a model who is, like many in the era of early psychology and sociology, too easily excused because of circumstance. More than that, however, they might learn how they look to a larger society for which the church has become a mere historical curiosity. Elmer Gantry is by no means the worst type of figure we can imagine in a secular society.
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