Chattering Mind

Chattering Mind

There’s Timeless Truth in “Elmer Gantry”

I went to our local Barnes & Noble Monday morning and picked up Sinclair Lewis’s famous study of religious hypocrisy–the 1927 novel called “Elmer Gantry” (which became an Academy Award-winning film starring Burt Lancaster in 1960).


In the novel, Elmer Gantry is a fictionalized Christian evangelist who drinks, womanizes and secretly indulges in a life of the senses. During the course of the novel, the curtain rises on Gantry’s house of lies, but he survives the calamities.

I’m actually surprised that no one covering the Haggard scandal has referred back to this old classic. I always love it when literature brings forward themes decades before life reenacts them, though I daresay hypocritical men of the cloth are as old as the Holy Land. No, even older, I guess. Anyway, here’s a salient passage from the book’s closing chapter:

“He stood at his study door, watching the robed choir filing out to the auditorium chanting. He realized how he had come to love the details of his church; how, if his people betrayed him now, he would miss it: the choir, the pulpit, the singing, the adoring faces.


It had come. He could not put it off. He had to face them.

Feebly the Reverend Dr. Gantry wavered through the door to the auditorium and exposed himself to twenty-five hundred question marks.

They rose and cheered–cheered–cheered. Theirs were the shining faces of friends.

Without planning it, Elmer knelt on the platform, holding his hands out to them, sobbing, and with him they all knelt and sobbed and prayed, while outside the locked glass door of the church, seeing the mob kneel within, hundreds knelt on the steps of the church, on the sidewalk, all down the block.”

This passage points to the devotion and forgiveness in people–something Ted Haggard may one day appreciate. But in “Elmer Gantry,” it’s a little unclear to me whether Gantry’s own followers are applauding him for being exactly who he is–a lovable, sinning scoundrel, or whether they’re assuming that his faith will prevent him from diverging from the righteous path ever again. In the book’s final paragraphs, Sinclair Lewis clearly indicates that Elmer Gantry isn’t apt to change, since he’s shown checking out a pretty girl in the choir he’d like to get to know.

Does anyone out there who has studied “Elmer Gantry” have additional thoughts?

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posted November 7, 2006 at 2:50 pm

This discussion dovetails interestingly with Crunchy Con’s blog post comparing the ultra Right-Wing Republican movement in America and “1984.” Specifically, the right simply ignores, and makes great effort to FORGET COMPLETELY, facts and events which do not align with their spoon-fed ideology. Perhaps Gantry’s followers are similarly eager to forgive and forget (with great emphasis on the forget part) because anything else would force them to face how completely duped they were, which would hurt too much.

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Garnet David

posted November 7, 2006 at 5:14 pm

Hey, I’m glad you posted this! What a brilliant connection of these events to literature.I fear Lewis’ ending is the realistic one for Haggard. People don’t really change, they just get better at covering and protecting their weaknesses.

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posted November 10, 2006 at 5:29 pm

Certainly true for Jimmy Swaggart, who was caught with porn and prostitutes more than once.

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