About Elmer Gantry

Elmer Gantry.

Written in 1926 by Sinclair Lewis, this book rocked the religious world and was banned in more than a few cities largely because of the fictional character the book was named for.

Though quite popular and controversial as a book, it was the 1960 film that was among the few movies I remember my grandfather, J.R. Watkins, talking about.

J.R. spent much of his life, over 60 years in fact, as a Methodist preacher. His father was a Methodist preacher, as was his father’s father, and his father’s father’s father; four consecutive generations of pastors dating back to the founding of our country.

That’s a long time for a family to tread the path of ministry.

J.R. spent much of his ministry in Kansas.

Elmer Gantry was from Kansas, but I think there was more that piqued J.R.’s interest in the film. Elmer Gantry, like my grandfather, was a Methodist preacher. Yes, maybe that was it. They were both Methodist preachers in Kansas.

Methodist ministers in the early 20th century were known for their fire and brimstone preaching, not the "wishy washy liberal theology" that overran the denomination in more recent years. Many Methodists ministers before 1950 had a moral certainty that would make Pat Robertson proud.

Elmer Gantry was the first depiction of a preacher who was also a complete scoundrel. The portrayal won Burt Lancaster an Oscar for Best Actor. These days it’s hard to imagine a tradition in cinema where all clergy weren’t scoundrels. In 1960, however, Elmer Gantry marked the end of religious leaders portrayed in a positive light. The cinematic slander of clergy in films that followed was swift and stunning.

I watched the film for the first time, recalling how my grandfather was amused – not threatened- amused by the story. A story loosely based on the life of Aimee Semple McPherson.

Aimee Semple McPherson was America’s first radio evangelist. “Sister Aimee’s” charismatic oration won her throngs of followers. Her career became tarnished by dubious claims of having been kidnapped, drugged and tortured then being left for dead in the Mexican desert. Many suspected she concocted the story to conceal having run off with her radio program engineer, Kenneth Ormiston.

Instead of a radio engineer, Sinclair Lewis casts the character of Elmer Gantry as a shameless con man and philanderer. Elmer dabbles in preaching, not out of spiritual conviction, but material gain – and to pursue the Aimee-like character named Sharon Falconer. The film was, well, racy, in its portrayal of the sexual misconduct; controversial not only for the sexuality, but suggested hypocrisy of institutional religion.

I mention my grandfather in connection with this film because he never lived to see the repeated and unfortunate downfall of the televangelist’s of my generation. Nor did he live to experience the culture wars that have pitted religious conservatives, much like those depicted in the film, with God forsaken liberals (what the film called “modernists.”)

Watching Elmer Gantry was captivating, confirming the wisdom of Solomon in Ecclesiastes. There IS truly “nothing new under the sun.”

Imagine a movie made in 1960 that accurately depicts a brewing “culture war.” Exposes contradictions within organized religion, then, get this, portrays a bona fide miracle!  The hard drinking, womanizing Elmer Gantry, as it turns out, ends up making one of the most profound defenses for the truth of scripture in a debate with a cynical newspaper editor (yes, they were the “Godless media” back then too).

The impact this film had on me was, I imagine, the same as for my grandfather. The story decried a “feel good” Christianity and begged for something more, something real, something worth dying for.

In my thirteen years as an associate pastor, I don’t recall a single class or sermon devoted to examining our own contemporary history. I find the culture of evangelical Christianity curiously lacking in self-reflection. Conservative Christians may be surprised to learn their brand of religion is a rather new, and arguably misguided, distortion of a faith that would otherwise refute the delusion of American exceptionalism.

Their kind of self-assurance does a disservice to our call and our cause. Even Christ showed pause prior to His embracing the cross as he asked the Father to “take this cup from me” (Mark 14:36). In our efforts to practice our faith, the enemy is well served by those who think they have all the answers and presume to know the mind of Christ in all things social and political.

The world can smell this kind of religious arrogance a mile away.

Pointing fingers without self-appraisal will only produce more Elmer Gantry’s.


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