Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 28


His friendship with Dr. Philip McGarry of the Arbor Church was all, Frank Shallard felt, that kept him in the church. As to his round little wife Bess and the three respectable children, he had for them less passion than compassion, and he could, he supposed, make enough money somehow to care for them.

McGarry was not an extraordinary scholar, not especially eloquent, not remarkably virtuous, but in him there was kindness along with robust humor, a yearning for justice steeled by common sense, and just that quality of authentic good-fellowship which the Professional Good Fellows of Zenith, whether preachers or shoe-salesmen, blasphemed against by shouting and guffawing and back — slapping. Women trusted in his strength and his honor; children were bold with him; men disclosed to him their veiled sorrows; and he was more nimble to help them than to be shocked.

Frank worshiped him.

Himself a bachelor, McGarry had become an intimate of Frank’s house. He knew where the ice-pick was kept, and where the thermos bottles for picnics; he was as likely as Frank to wash up after late suppers; and if he called and the elder Shallards were not in, he slipped up-stairs and was found there scandalously keeping the children awake by stories of his hunting in Montana and Arizona and Saskatchewan.

It was thus when Frank and Bess came home from prayer-meeting one evening. Philip McGarry’s own prayer-meetings were brief. A good many people said they were as artificial a form of religious bait as Elmer Gantry’s Lively Sunday Evenings, but if McGarry did also have the habit of making people sing “Smile, Smile, Smile” on all public events except possibly funerals, at least he was not so insistent about their shouting it.

They drifted down to the parsonage living-room, which Bess had made gay with chintzes, Frank studious with portentous books of sociology. Frank sat deep in a chair smoking a pipe — he could never quite get over looking like a youngish college professor who smokes to show what a manly fellow he is. McGarry wandered about the room. He had a way of pointing arguments by shaking objects of furniture — pokers, vases, books, lamps — which was as dangerous as it looked.

“Oh, I was rotten at prayer-meeting tonight,” Frank grumbled. “Darn it, I can’t seem to go on being interested in the fact that old Mrs. Besom finds God such a comfort in her trials. Mrs. Besom’s daughter-inlaw doesn’t find Mrs. Besom any comfort in HER trials, let me tell you! And yet I don’t see how I can say to her, after she’s been fluttering around among the angels and advertising how dead certain she is that Jesus loves her — I haven’t quite the nerve to say, ‘Sister, you tight-fisted, poison-tongued, old hellcat —’”

“Why, Frank!” from Bess, in placid piety.

“’— you go home and forget your popularity in Heaven and ask your son and his wife to forgive you for trying to make them your kind of saint, with acidity of the spiritual stomach!’”

“Why, FRANK!”

“Let him rave, Bess,” said McGarry. “If a preacher didn’t cuss his congregation out once in a while, nobody but St. John would ever’ve lasted — and I’ll bet he wasn’t very good at weekly services and parish visiting!”

“AND,” went on Frank, “tomorrow I’ve got a funeral. That Henry Semp. Weighed two hundred and eighty pounds from the neck down and three ounces from the neck up. Perfectly good Christian citizen who believed that Warren G. Harding was the greatest man since George Washington. I’m sure he never beat his wife. Worthy communicant. But when his wife came to hire me, she wept like the dickens when she talked about Henry’s death, but I noticed from the window that when she went off down the street she looked particularly cheerful. Yes, Henry was a bulwark of the nation; not to be sneered at by highbrows. And I’m dead certain, from something she said, that every year they’ve jipped the Government out of every cent they could on their income tax. And tomorrow I’m supposed to stand up there and tell his friends what a moral example and intellectual Titan he was, and how the poor little woman is simply broken by sorrow. Well, cheer up! From what I know of her, she’ll be married again within six months, and if I do a good job of priesting tomorrow, maybe I’ll get the fee! Oh, Lord, Phil, what a job, what a lying compromising job, this being a minister!”

It was their hundredth argument over the question.

McGarry waved a pillow, discarded it for Bess’ purse, while she tried not to look alarmed, and shouted, “It is not! As I heard a big New York preacher say one day: he knew how imperfect the ministry is, and how many second-raters get into it, and yet if he had a thousand lives, he’d want to be a minister of the gospel, to be a man showing the philosophy of Jesus to mankind, in every one of ’em. And the church universal, no matter what its failings, is still the only institution in which we can work together to hand on that gospel. Maybe it’s your fault, not the church’s, young Frank, if you’re so scared of your people that you lie at funerals! I don’t, by Jiminy!”

“You do, by Jiminy, my dear Phil! You don’t know it. No, what you do is, you hypnotize yourself until you’re convinced that every dear departed was a model of some virtue, and then you rhapsodize about that.”

“Well, probably he was!”

“Of course. Probably your burglar was a model of courage, and your gambler a model of kindness to everybody except the people he robbed, but I don’t like being hired to praise burglars and gamblers and respectable loan-sharks and food-hounds like Henry Semp, and encourage youngsters to accept their standards, and so keep on perpetuating this barbarous civilization for which we preachers are as responsible as the lawyers or the politicians or the soldiers or even the school-masters. No, sir! Oh, I AM going to get out of the church! Think of it! A PREACHER, getting religion, getting saved, getting honest, getting out! Then I’d know the joys of sanctification that you Methodys talk about!”

“Oh, you make me tired!” Bess complained, not very aggressively. She looked, at forty-one, like a plump and amiable girl of twenty. “Honestly, Phil, I do wish you could show Frank where he’s wrong. I can’t, and I’ve been trying these fifteen years.”

“You have, my lamb!”

“Honestly, Phil, can’t you make him see it?” said Bess. “He’s — of course I do adore him, but of all the cry-babies I ever met — He’s the worst of all my children! He talks about going into charity work, about getting a job with a labor bank or a labor paper, about lecturing, about trying to write. Can’t you make him see that he’d be just as discontented whatever he did? I’ll bet you the labor leaders and radical agitators and the Charity Organization Society people aren’t perfect little angels any more than preachers are!”

“Heavens, I don’t expect ’em to be! I don’t expect to be content,” Frank protested. “And isn’t it a good thing to have a few people who are always yammering? Never get anywhere without. What a joke that a minister, who’s supposed to have such divine authority that he can threaten people with hell, is also supposed to be such an office-boy that he can be cussed out and fired if he dares to criticize capitalists or his fellow ministers! Anyway — Dear Bess, it’s rotten on you. I’d LIKE to be a contented sort, I’d like to ‘succeed,’ to be satisfied with being half-honest. But I can’t. . . . You see, Phil, I was brought up to believe the Christian God wasn’t a scared and compromising public servant, but the creator and advocate of the whole merciless truth, and I reckon that training spoiled me — I actually took my teachers seriously!”

“Oh, tut, tut, Frank; trouble with you is,” Philip McGarry yawned, “trouble with YOU is, you like arguing more than you do patiently working out the spiritual problems of some poor, dumb, infinitely piteous human being that comes to you for help, and that doesn’t care a hoot whether you advocate Zoroastrianism or Seventh-day Adventism, so long as he feels that you love him and that you can bring him strength from a power higher than himself. I know that if you could lose your intellectual pride, if you could forget that you have to make a new world, better’n the Creator’s, right away tonight — you and Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells and H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis (Lord, how that book of Lewis’, ‘Main Street,’ did bore me, as much of it as I read; it just rambled on forever, and all he could see was that some of the Gopher Prairie hicks didn’t go to literary teas quite as often as he does! — that was all he could see among those splendid heroic pioneers)! Well, as I was saying, if instead of starting in where your congregation has left off, because they never had your chance, you could draw them along with you —”

“I try to! And let me tell you, young fellow, I’ve got a few of ’em far enough along so they’re having the sense to leave me and my evangelical church and go off to the Unitarians or stay away from church altogether — thus, Bess darling, depriving my wife and babes of a few more pennies! But seriously, Phil —”

“A man always says ‘But seriously’ when he feels the previous arguments haven’t been so good yet!”

“Maybe. But anyway, what I mean to say is: Of course my liberalism is all foolishness! Do you know why my people stand for it? They’re not enough interested to realize what I’m saying! If I had a successor who was a fundamentalist, they’d like him just as well or better, and they’d go back a-whooping to the sacred hell-fire that I’ve coaxed ’em out of. They don’t believe I mean it when I take a shot at the fear of eternal punishment, and the whole magic and taboo system of worshiping the Bible and the ministry, and all the other skull-decorated vestiges of horror there are in so-called Christianity! They don’t know it! Partly it’s because they’ve been trained not to believe anything much they hear in sermons. But also it’s my fault. I’m not aggressive. I ought to jump around like a lunatic or a popular evangelist, and shout, ‘D’ you understand? When I say that most of your religious opinions are bunk, why, what I mean is, they’re BUNK!’ I’ve never been violently enough in earnest to be beaten for the sake of the Lord our God! . . . Not yet!”

“Hah, there I’ve got you, Frank! Tickles me to see you try to be the village atheist! ‘For the sake of the Lord’ you just said. And how often I’ve heard you say at parting ‘God bless you’— and you meant it! Oh, no, you don’t believe in Christ! Not any more than the Pope at Rome!”

“I suppose that if I said ‘God damn you,’ that would also prove that I was a devout Christian! Oh, Phil, I can’t understand how a man as honest as you, as really fond of helping people — and of tolerating them! — can stand being classed with a lot of your fellow preachers and not even kick about it! Think of your going on enduring being a fellow Methodist preacher right in the same town with Elmer Gantry and not standing up in ministers’ meeting and saying, ‘Either he gets out or I do!’”

“I know! You idiot, don’t you suppose those of us that are halfway decent suffer from being classed with Gantry, and that we hate him more than you do? But even if Elmer is rather on the swine side, what of it? Would you condemn a fine aspiring institution, full of broad-gauged, earnest fellows, because one of them was a wash-out?”

“One? Just one? I’ll admit there aren’t many, not VERY many, hogs like Gantry in your church, or any other, but let me give my loving fraternal opinions of a few others of your splendid Methodist fellows! Bishop Toomis is a gas-bag. Chester Brown, with his candles and chanting, he’s merely an Episcopalian who’d go over to the Episcopal church if he weren’t afraid he’d lose too much salary in starting again — just as a good share of the Anglo–Catholic Episcopalians are merely Catholics who’d go over to Rome if they weren’t afraid of losing social caste. Otto Hickenlooper, with his institutions — the rich are so moved by his charities that they hand him money and Otto gets praised for spending that money. Fine vicious circle. And think of some poor young idiot studying art, wasting his time and twisting his ideas, at Otto’s strictly moral art class, where the teacher is chosen more for his opinions on the sacraments than for his knowledge of composition.”

“But, Frank, I’ve SAID all —”

“And the sound, the scholarly, the well-balanced Dr. Mahlon Potts! Oh, he’s a perfectly good man, and not a fanatic. Doesn’t believe that evolution is a fiendish doctrine. The only trouble with him — as with most famous preachers — is that he hasn’t the slightest notion what human beings are like. He’s insulated; has been ever since he became a preacher. He goes to the death-beds of prostitutes (but not very often, I’ll bet!) but he can’t understand that perfectly decent husbands and wives often can’t get along because of sexual incompatibility.

“Potts lives in a library; he gets his idea of human motives out of George Eliot and Margaret Deland, and his ideas of economics out of editorials in the Advocate, and his idea as to what he really is accomplishing out of the flattery of his Ladies’ Aid! He’s a much worse criminal than Gantry! I imagine Elmer has some desire to be a good fellow and share his swag, but Dr. Potts wants to make over an entire world of living, bleeding, sweating, loving, fighting human beings into the likeness of Dr. Potts — of Dr. Potts taking his afternoon nap and snoring under a shelf of books about the doctrines of the Ante–Nicene Fathers!”

“Golly, you simply love us! And I suppose you think I admire all these fellows! Why, they regard me as a heretic, from the bishop down,” said Philip McGarry.

“And yet you stay with them!”

“Any other church better?”

“Oh, no. Don’t think I give all my love to the Methodists. I take them only because they’re your particular breed. My own Congregationalists, the Baptists who taught me that immersion is more important than social justice, the Presbyterians, the Campbellites, the whole lot — oh, I love ’em all about equally!”

“And what about yourself? What about me?”

“You know what I think of myself — a man too feeble to stand up and risk being called a crank or a vile atheist! And about you, my young liberal friend, I was just saving you to the last in my exhibit of Methodist parsons! You’re the worst of the lot!”

“Oh, now, Frank!” yawned Bess.

She was sleepy. How preachers did talk! Did plasterers and authors and stock-brokers sit up half the night discussing their souls, fretting as to whether plastering or authorship or stock-broking was worth while?

She yawned again, kissed Frank, patted Philip’s cheek, and made exit with, “You may be feeble, Frank, but you certainly can talk a strong, rugged young wife to death!”

Frank, usually to be cowed by her jocose grumbling and Philip’s friendly jabs, was tonight afire and unquenchable.

“Yes, you’re the worst of all, Phil! You DO know something of human beings. You’re not like old Potts, who’s always so informative about how much sin there is in the world and always so astonished when he meets an actual sinner. And you don’t think it matters a hang whether a seeker after decency gets ducked — otherwise baptized — or not. And yet when you get up in the pulpit, from the way you wallow in prayer people believe that you’re just as chummy with the Deity as Potts or Gantry. Your liberalism never lasts you more than from my house to the street-car. You talk about the golden streets of Heaven and the blessed peace of the hereafter, and yet you’ve admitted to me, time and again, that you haven’t the slightest idea whether there is any personal life after death. You talk about Redemption, and the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and how God helps this nation to win a war and hits that other with a flood, and a lot more things that you don’t believe privately at all.”

“Oh, I know! Thunder! But you yourself — you pray in church.”

“Not really. For over a year now I’ve never addressed a prayer to any definite deity. I say something like ‘Let us in meditation, forgetting the worries of daily life, join our spirits in longing for the coming of perpetual peace’— something like that.”

“Well, it sounds like a pretty punk prayer to me, Frankie! The only trouble with you is, you feel you’re called on to rewrite the Lord’s Prayer for him!”

Philip laughed gustily, and slapped Frank’s shoulder.

“Damn it, don’t be so jocular! I know it’s a poor prayer. It’s terrible. Nebulous. Meaningless. Like a barker at the New Thought side-show. I don’t mind your disliking it, but I do mind your trying to be humorous! Why is it that you lads who defend the church are so facetious when you really get down to discussing the roots of religion?”

“I know, Frank. Effect of too much preaching. But seriously: Yes, I do say things in the pulpit that I don’t mean literally. What of it? People understand these symbols; they’ve been brought up with them, they’re comfortable with them. My object in preaching is to teach the art of living as far as I can; to encourage my people — and myself — to be kind, to be honest, to be clean, to be courageous, to love God and their fellow-men; and the whole experience of the church shows that those lessons can best be taught through such really noble concepts as salvation and the presence of the Holy Ghost and Heaven and so on.”

“Hm. Does it? Has the church ever tried anything else? And just what the dickens do you mean by ‘being clean’ and ‘being honest’ and ‘teaching the art of living’? Lord, how we preachers do love to use phrases that don’t mean anything! But suppose you were perfectly right. Nevertheless, by using the same theological slang as a Gantry or a Toomis or a Potts, you unconsciously make everybody believe that you think and act like them too.”

“Nonsense! Not that I’m particularly drawn by the charms of any of these fellow sages. I’d rather be wrecked on a desert island with you, you old atheist! — you darned old fool! But suppose they were as bad as you think. I still wouldn’t feel it was my duty to foul my own nest, to make this grand old Methodist Church, with its saints and heroes like Wesley and Asbury and Quayle and Cartwright and McDowell and McConnell — why, the tears almost come to my eyes when I think of men like that! Look here: Suppose you were at war, in a famous regiment. Suppose a lot of your fellow soldiers, even the present commander of the regiment himself, were rotters — cowards. Would you feel called on to desert? Or to fight all the harder to make up for their faults?”

“Phil, next to the humorous ragging I spoke of, and the use of stale phrases, the worst cancer in religious discussion is the use of the metaphor! The Protestant church is not a regiment. You’re not a soldier. The soldier has to fight when and as he’s told. You have absolute liberty, outside of a few moral and doctrinal compulsions.”

“Ah-hah, now I’ve got you, my logical young friend! If we have that liberty, why aren’t you willing to stay in the church? Oh, Frank, Frank, you are such a fool! I know that you long for righteousness. Can’t you see that you can get it best by staying in the church, liberalizing from within, instead of running away and leaving the people to the ministrations of the Gantrys?”

“I know. I’ve been thinking just that all these years. That’s why I’m still a preacher! But I’m coming to believe that it’s tommyrot. I’m coming to think that the hell-howling old mossbacks corrupt the honest liberals a lot more than the liberals lighten the backwoods minds of the fundamentalists. What the dickens is the church accomplishing, really? Why have a church at all? What has it for humanity that you won’t find in worldly sources — schools, books, conversation?”

“It has this, Frank: It has the unique personality and teachings of Jesus Christ, and there is something in Jesus, there is something in the way he spoke, there is something in the feeling of a man when he suddenly has that inexpressible experience of KNOWING the Master and his presence, which makes the church of Jesus different from any other merely human institution or instrument whatsoever! Jesus is not simply greater and wiser than Socrates or Voltaire; he is entirely DIFFERENT. Anybody can interpret and teach Socrates or Voltaire — in schools or books or conversation. But to interpret the personality and teachings of Jesus requires an especially called, chosen, trained, consecrated body of men, united in an especial institution — the church.”

“Phil, it sounds so splendid. But just what WERE the personality and the teachings of Jesus? I’ll admit it’s the heart of the controversy over the Christian religion:— aside from the fact that, of course, most people believe in a church because they were BORN to it. But the essential query is: Did Jesus — if the Biblical accounts of him are even half accurate — have a particularly noble personality, and were his teachings particularly original and profound? You know it’s almost impossible to get people to read the Bible honestly. They’ve been so brought up to take the church interpretation of every word that they read into it whatever they’ve been taught to find there. It’s been so with me, up to the last couple of years. But now I’m becoming a quarter free, and I’m appalled to see that I don’t find Jesus an especially admirable character!

“He is picturesque. He tells splendid stories. He’s a good fellow, fond of low company — in fact the idea of Jesus, whom the bishops of his day cursed as a rounder and wine-bibber, being chosen as the god of the Prohibitionists is one of the funniest twists in history. But he’s vain, he praises himself outrageously, he’s fond of astonishing people by little magical tricks which we’ve been taught to revere as ‘miracles.’ He is furious as a child in a tantrum when people don’t recognize him as a great leader. He loses his temper. He blasts the poor barren fig-tree when it doesn’t feed him. What minds people have! They hear preachers proving by the Bible the exact opposites, that the Roman Catholic Church is divinely ordained and that it is against all divine ordinances, and it never occurs to them that far from the Christian religion — or any other religion — being a blessing to humanity, it’s produced such confusion in all thinking, such secondhand viewing of actualities, that only now are we beginning to ask what and why we are, and what we can do with life!

“Just what are the teachings of Christ? Did he come to bring peace or more war? He says both. Did he approve earthly monarchies or rebel against them? He says both. Did he ever — think of it, God himself, taking on human form to help the earth — did he ever suggest sanitation, which would have saved millions from plagues? And you can’t say his failure there was because he was too lofty to consider mere sickness. On the contrary, he was awfully interested in it, always healing some one — providing they flattered his vanity enough!

“What DID he teach? One place in the Sermon on the Mount he advises — let me get my Bible — here it is: ‘Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven,’ and then five minutes later he’s saying, ‘Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them, otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.’ That’s an absolute contradiction, in the one document which is the charter of the whole Christian Church. Oh, I know you can reconcile them, Phil. That’s the whole aim of the ministerial training: to teach us to reconcile contradictions by saying that one of them doesn’t mean what it means — and it’s always a good stunt to throw in ‘You’d understand it if you’d only read it in the original Greek’!

“There’s just one thing that does stand out clearly and uncontradicted in Jesus’ teaching. He advocated a system of economics whereby no one saved money or stored up wheat or did anything but live like a tramp. If this teaching of his had been accepted, the world would have starved in twenty years, after his death!

“No, wait, Phil, just one second and then I’m through!”

He talked till dawn.

Frank’s last protest, as they stood on the steps in the cold grayness, was:

“My objection to the church isn’t that the preachers are cruel, hypocritical, actually wicked, though some of them are that, too — think of how many are arrested for selling fake stock, for seducing fourteen-year-old girls in orphanages under their care, for arson, for murder. And it isn’t so much that the church is in bondage to Big Business and doctrines as laid down by millionaires — though a lot of churches are that, too. My chief objection is that ninety-nine percent of sermons and Sunday School teachings are so agonizingly DULL!”


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57