Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry (New York, 1927) is a ferocious satire against Protestant fundamentalist religion in the American Midwest. It tells the story of a hypocritical, corrupt, but very successful preacher named Elmer Gantry. Elmer starts his career as a Baptist and then joins up with a charismatic but equally unprincipled female revivalist preacher. After her death, he joins the Methodist Church. Amoral and relentlessly ambitious, Elmer builds a statewide and national reputation as a fiery preacher who never tires of denouncing vice, while at the same time feeling no need to curb his own vices, particularly adultery.
Besides being an effective satire targeted against religious hypocrisy, Elmer Gantry provides insight into the clash of cultural forces in America in the 1920s. During this period, traditional religious believers were deeply disturbed by the encroachments made on faith by science and secularism. They also decried the growth within the church of the “higher criticism,” that sought to understand the Bible based on modern methods of scholarship.
On publication, Elmer Gantry had a sensational reception. So scandalous was Lewis’s portrayal of religion that the novel was banned in several cities and denounced from pulpits across the nation. The famous evangelist Billy Sunday called Lewis “Satan’s cohort.”
Over seventy-five years after it first appeared, Elmer Gantry still has power to shock as well as amuse.