Institutionalized religion has attracted its fair share of satirical assaults in its time, but Elmer Gantry must surely rank as the most savage in American literature. Lewis is like a ruthless hunter who spares nothing and still has ammunition left at the end of the day. It is a fairly narrow assault, since Lewis’s targets are confined to Protestant churches and revival campaigns, but within that range, Lewis’s fire is deadly and continuous. For the most part, he does not create complex human portraits but caricatures. Those who believe in the doctrines of the church are presented as fools or morons, and are easy targets for malicious fun. One such incident (chapter 2, section 3) is when the pious but not very bright Eddie Fislinger is outwitted by Jim Lefferts’s atheist father for the amusement of Jim and Elmer. The incident is not strictly necessary for the plot, and Lefferts’s father never appears in the novel again.
There are several other minor characters who are introduced with no apparent purpose other than to serve as victims of the author’s anti-religious inclination. One such character is the dean of Terwillinger College, who makes a brief appearance in chapter 4, section 3, in which he wonders, in conversation with his wife, whether he has sacrificed too much by going into the ministry. He wonders whether he might have become a great chemist, which would surely have been better (and more profitable) than “year after year again of standing in the pulpit and knowing your congregation don’t remember what you’ve said seven minutes after you’ve said it.” From discontented dean, who never appears again, the narrative moves immediately to the aged parents of the dean’s wife. The wife is full of complaints about the life she has had to lead, married to a preacher, criticized by the church women if they thought her clothes weren’t suitable, sick of “having to pretend to be so good when we were just common folks all the time!” Her tirade at her husband, who only wants to be allowed to go to sleep, includes the following passage:
Oh, dear. Fifty years since I married a preacher! And if I could still only be sure about the virgin birth! Now don’t you go explaining! Laws, the number of times you’ve explained! I know it’s true—it’s in the Bible. If I could only believe it!
Another minor character who serves as one small brick in the vast anti-clerical edifice that is Elmer Gantry is Dr. Howard Bancock Binch, a renowned defender of the literal truth of the Bible. Binch is brought on for one five-page section of chapter 14, when Elmer and Sharon happen to meet him in Joliet and lunch with him. Binch is a dreadful character who leers at Sharon and has an excessive interest in church fundraising. He advises Elmer not to denounce vice directly, by naming names and giving addresses of illegal drinking places, because the owners of such buildings—who of course have no knowledge of any illegal activities—are often leading church contributors and attacking them would jeopardize their support for the church. This is tantamount to an admission that the church is happy to receive money that is tainted by the very practices it denounces so vehemently.
Binch is also a snob who has contempt for other preachers. At a revival meeting he does not like to include all the preachers in town. If all of them are there, he says,
. . . you have to deal with a lot of these two-by-four hick preachers with churches about the size of woodsheds and getting maybe eleven hundred a year, and yet they think they have the right to make suggestions!
Even the physical description of Binch is calculated to evoke disgust: “Dr. Binch stopped gulping his fried pork chops and held out a flabby, white, holy hand.”
Having ridiculed the unfortunate Dr. Binch, Lewis removes him from the scene and never mentions him again.
In creating the evangelist Sharon Falconer, the author presents himself with a bigger, although more complex, target. Sharon is a woman of many selves: she is imperious and efficient, but also vulnerable. She is flirtatious, and able to get men to do her bidding. She is volatile, self-dramatizing, self-deceiving, self-promoting, cunning, playful, cynical, ambitious, and ruthless—a Cleopatra of the revivalist circuit. She is certainly not the saintly evangelist she presents herself to be, and she maintains a smug sense of...
(The entire section is 1838 words.)