In the same vein as Lewis’s Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), and Arrowsmith (1925)—pointed and venomous satires of small-town culture, business, and medicineElmer Gantry implies what Christianity should be by offering a brutal exposé of religion at its worst. In many ways, the novel was a product of its time. The rise of fundamentalism—highlighted by the Scopes trial in 1925 (in which defense attorney Clarence Darrow struck a victory for the teaching of evolution) and the celebrity enjoyed by evangelists such Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson—alerted Lewis to the tremendous power in the hands of charismatic and populist ministers. In Elmer Gantry, Lewis creates a cast of ministers who represent the most vicious accusations that could be leveled at a minister: hypocrisy, hucksterism, lasciviousness, charlatanism. Even those who are sincere in their beliefs are portrayed as simple-minded and lowbrow. Far from being cautionary examples, however, the sheer ubiquity of disingenuous ministers in the novel suggests that Lewis saw them as typical. An important issue raised by Elmer Gantry is therefore whether the problem of corrupt and dishonest ministers is systemic—that is, whether the nature of the church itself, or at least its evangelical faction, fosters such ministers.
In many ways, Lewis’s most subversive satire is not aimed at ministers but at religion itself. The contemptible insincerity of ministers in Elmer Gantry is so exaggerated that Lewis’s critics often simply dismiss it as pure animosity on Lewis’s part. On the other hand, the portrayal of religion, in spite of its burlesque quality, seems to ask a more nuanced question. At the core of Elmer Gantry is the issue of whether religious faith is still reasonable in a technologically advanced and well-educated America. The most highly educated and introspective characters in Elmer Gantry—the characters who seem to possess some modicum of integrity—offer cogent and thought-provoking arguments against Christianity, while the faithful drone on in platitudes and clichés.
Lewis’s satire proved to be pointed enough to become part of the American lexicon. Though ministers at the time of the novel’s publication vigorously protested its portrayal of their profession, they were unable to escape the stereotypes posited by Lewis. Even today, the term “Elmer Gantry” is used to characterize a minister whose flamboyance and self-promotion suggest an inauthentic faith.