mad in pursuit journal

DISPATCHED FROM THE CROSSROADS

Elmer Gantry

"When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." Sinclair Lewis

Last night we watched the Burt Lancaster movie "Elmer Gantry" (1960). Excellent oldie that I'd never seen — the characters better drawn and more complex than I expected.

The movie is based on the Sinclair Lewis novel published in 1927 about the womanizing tent preacher Gantry.

Lewis did research for the novel by observing the work of preacher Burris Jenkins, pastor in the Linwood Boulevard Methodist Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Missouri. Jenkins introduced Lewis to many other clergymen, among them the Reverend L.M. Birkhead, a Unitarian and an agnostic. ...[B]oth of these associations, as well as others, influenced characters in the novel... [W]hile researching the book, ... Lewis attended two or three church services every Sunday while in Kansas City, and ... "he took advantage of every possible tangential experience in the religious community." The result is a novel that represents the religious activity of America in evangelistic circles and the attitudes of the 1920s toward it. [wikipedia]

The book was banned in Boston and other cities and renounced from pulpits across America.

Radio/television preachers and mega-churches are part of the scenery these days, but it wasn't always so. In the mid-20th century, the "modernists" won control of the mainstream, northern Protestant churches and the "fundamentalist" were consigned to a minority. Yet, as "evangelicals" they slowly built their following. From answers.com:

[A] shift saw evangelicalism's institutional center of gravity relocate out of denominations and into its networks of parachurch organizations. After the modernists won their right to remain in the denominations, evangelicals gradually lost influence there. But for the most part, instead of creating new denominations, they poured their religious energies into building parachurch agencies, especially Bible institutes, mission agencies, and evangelism organizations. Between 1925 and 1940 the term "evangelical" received little use, but after that (the National Association of Evangelicals was founded in 1941) the term came to designate this interdenominational network. The evangelical network's highest-profile figure was also the man who revived mass evangelism—Billy Graham.

Whenever passions run high, hucksterism and corruption creep in. It's no big surprise these days to find out that a televangelist has had one hand in the till and another up someone's skirt.

I don't think this has anything to do with religion. Big money-making institutions that depend on charismatic leaders attract power-hungry men (usually men, don't you think?) with big appetites. For cynical men like Elmer Gantry, tent preaching was just another means to his end, with more money and a better class of dames than selling vacuum cleaners.

I'm thinking of George Bush, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and any number of current political power-seekers who pursue their cynical agendas by whipping up evangelical fervor and by invoking the moral values of many serious believers. I think this is why I have a knee-jerk reaction against Barack Obama — I like his words, but I've had enough of words. Didn't that empty suit George Bush run on the platform of being a "uniter" too? Give me a plain-looking girl who did her homework in school. I think I'm backing Hillary.

8.21.07

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