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Sinclair Lewis - Elmer Gantry

Bjørn Stærk, January 2008

On a 1927 satire of evangelism, and what we can learn from it.

A while back I looked at a list of bestselling books in the US throughout the 20th century. I was not very surprised to find that the further I went back, the fewer authors I recognized - barely anyone, that is. One of the few names from the early 1900's that looked familiar, Winston Churchill, turned out to be someone else entirely. (I believe we should retroactively change the name of famous people with similar names, so they don't confuse later generations.) And throughout the 1920's, one "Sinclar Lewis" had a book in the top 10 every other year - never heard of him. Apparently he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

So? So nothing. There are no Obligatory Classics. But there are books that are dead, and then there are books that live. Like someone has taken something living and stuffed it in between two covers, and all you need to do is read the words to wake it up again. I like to find those books. It makes me happy.

Elmer Gantry - well, we know a little more about Elmer Gantry today than when Sinclair Lewis introduced him in 1927. We've seen James Randi's exposés of Peter Popoff. We've seen the twisted mess that is Ted Haggard. Jimmy Swaggart. Jim Bakker. Power-hungry charismatics with severe integrity defects - people who seem to be as good at deceiving themselves as they are at deceiving their followers.

As scandalous as Elmer Gantry was, where nearly every man of God is either a hypocrite or a closet agnostic, it isn't half as shocking as these real-life scandals. The Reverend Dr. Elmer Gantry doesn't buy drugs from male prostitutes, he's just an asshole who cheats on his wife. But I think Lewis's novel tells us more about the dark side of evangelism. Reality is more shocking, Lewis is more perceptive. He went to live with the people he wrote about. He studied them. And then he mercilessly satirized them, (often so drily that it's downright mean - look for the echoes of a quote by the atheist Robert Ingersoll throughout the story.)

Elmer Gantry is not an evil man. He ruins the lives of people around him, but he is not conscious of being malicious. He's a master of self-deception. A bully who discovers the joy of preaching to obedient crowds, his mind is so agile that he always manages to align his moral compass with his self-interest. When a new girl catches his interest, he forgives himself for pursuing her. When he loses interest, he condemns her for tempting him. He'll happily affiliate with any church that will have him, whether baptist, methodist or New Age.

Gantry is what Harry Frankfurt called a bullshitter. It's not that he deliberately sets out to lie to people, it's that he doesn't really care if what he says is true or not. He half-believes in God, but where some of the other characters in the novel, honest theologians exposed to liberal and agnostic ideas, struggle painfully with their doubt, he doesn't find such matters interesting at all. He's simple not concerned with truth. Neither, apparently, is his audience. Elmer Gantry seeks to speak, to feel the power of his words as they captivate his audience, and they seek to listen, to be captivated, by something vaguely morally sounding. Appearances, rhetorics, and righteousness. Bullshit, through and through.

Now - there are two angles to reading this novel in 2008. One is that evangelists are dangerous, and born-again Christians are hypocrites and fools. That's the safe and self-congratulatory way to read it. "Gosh, I'm glad I'm not like that." What Lewis describes, an environment where it's easy for bullshit to thrive, is real - I've been to enough Christian meetings to know that people don't go to church to have theological details cleared up for them, they go for the experience of listening to lofty and inspiring nonsense. Set a charismatic manipulator loose in such an environment, and you have your standard multi-millionaire televangelist. But I also know this isn't the whole picture. Lewis exaggerates, he satirizes. In 1927 such a portrayal of respectable Christians was original, today it would be a cliche.

The other angle is this: The bullshit-friendly environment Sinclair Lewis describes in Elmer Gantry is not limited to Christian communities. You also find it in the secular world of politics and media. The temptation to loosen the shackles of factuality, and just let the power of rhetorics flow through you, to be a bullshitter, is felt not just by preachers but by anyone who has ever had an audience. Politicians, pundits, - bloggers.

I know this: If you're a pundit or a blogger, your dear and loyal readers simply do not care if the details of what you say are wrong. They only ask that you mark yourself as belonging to their camp - and if you can do that in an entertaining and inspiring way, they will come back for more. There's a moment when you discover this - when you make a mistake, when you say something stupid, and you realize that nobody cares. They don't notice. They like your conclusion, and the music of your words, and the rest is irrelevant. You could say .. anything, within boundaries. And you feel - I've felt - how easy it would be to grab hold of that power, and ride it. For a good cause, obviously. It would be so easy. And it scares me.

So where would you find the Elmer Gantry's of today? Wherever there are captive audiences. Wherever you find powerful words, righteous anger, inspiration, moral causes. Where some people believe, and others supply it to them. Because it's so easy to fake those things, and get away with it, and be forgiven for mistakes, and return again, and again, and again.

Bjørn Stærk, 2008


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