When Governor of Texas Rick Perry prayed before 30,000 Christians Saturday morning, calling upon Jesus Christ to bless and guide “those who cannot see the light in the midst of all the darkness,” one literary work in particular flashed through my mind: Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry.
Gantry is the dissolute college jock turned charismatic evangelist in the Nobel prizewinner’s 1927 novel. Gantry’s conversion is suspect but not because he is a hypocrite. Rather, it’s that he sees no conflict between his religious beliefs and his ambitions. He learns, almost by accident, that becoming a successful preacher doesn’t keep him from making money or attracting pretty women. In fact, for him, being a minister is the easiest path to getting them.
Call me a cynic but I don’t see much that was spiritually transcendent about Perry’s participation in the prayer service. The Texas governor is a political animal who uses religion as a basic tool. Rightwing evangelicals see Perry as their best hope against Barack Obama—he’s more electable that Michele Bachman and more to their taste than Mormon Mitt Romney—and the prayer meeting will definitely help him in the Iowa and South Carolina primaries. He sees God as having called him to be a political leader, and the nation will hear more about this call if he runs for president.
While not overtly political, his prayer Saturday could be interpreted–and no doubt was interpreted by most of the attendees–as directed mostly against a particular man and his party:
“Lord, you are the source of every good thing. You are our only hope and we stand before you today in awe of your power and in gratitude for your blessings, and humility for our sins. Father, our heart breaks for America. We see discord at home. We see fear in the marketplace. We see anger in the halls of government, and as a nation we have forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us and for that we cry out for your forgiveness.”
“As we go out of this place, I hope you’ll continue to pray for our nation and our leaders, for our president, for all those elected officials—that God will pour out his wisdom upon them.”
Compare this to the prayer that Gantry gives in the final paragraphs of Lewis’s novel. Earthly concerns, be it noted, are never far from Gantry’s mind:
He turned to include the choir, and for the first time he saw that there was a new singer, a girl with charming ankles and lively eyes, with whom he would certainly have to become well acquainted. But the thought was so swift that it did not interrupt the pæan of his prayer:
“Let me count this day, Lord, as the beginning of a new and more vigorous life, as the beginning of a crusade for complete morality and the domination of the Christian church through all the land. Dear Lord, thy work is but begun! We shall yet make these United States a moral nation!”
Going through Lewis’s book, I found other passages that could apply to Perry. It just so happens that Gantry has both the looks and mannerisms of Perry, beginning with the fact that both men are six foot one:
A huge young man, Elmer Gantry; six foot one, thick, broad, big handed; a large face, handsome as a Great Dane is handsome, and a swirl of black hair, worn rather long. His eyes were friendly, his smile was friendly–oh, he was always friendly enough; he was merely astonished when he found that you did not understand his importance and did not want to hand over anything he might desire. He was a baritone solo turned into portly flesh; he was a gladiator laughing at the comic distortion of his wounded opponent.
He was born to be a senator. He never said anything important, and he always said it sonorously. He could make “Good morning” seem profound as Kant, welcoming as a brass band, and uplifting as a cathedral organ.
And then there’s this description of Gantry when he is still in college (Perry in college was, like Gantry, a prankster and an indifferent student):
Though Elmer was the athletic idol of the college, though his occult passion, his heavy good looks, caused the college girls to breathe quickly, though his manly laughter was as fetching as his resonant speech, Elmer was never really liked. He was supposed to be the most popular man in college; every one believed that every one else adored him; and none of them wanted to be with him. They were all a bit afraid, a bit uncomfortable, and more than a bit resentful.
It was not merely that he was a shouter, a pounder on backs, an overwhelming force, so that there was never any refuge of intimacy with him. It was because he was always demanding. Except with his widow mother, whom he vaguely worshiped, and with Jim Lefferts [his best friend], Elmer assumed that he was the center of the universe and that the rest of the system was valuable only as it afforded him help and pleasure.
He wanted everything.
Gantry will do anything to get his way. To cover up his philandering ways, he weasels out of one tight sport after another, at one point even setting up his fiance to receive a sympathetic kiss from a friend so that Gantry can break their engagement. (He also turns the screws on a woman who threatens to expose him.) Perry too plays a slippery brand of politics, most notoriously in the case of a man who he had executed despite the appearance of exculpatory evidence (the fire that killed three children was probably not arson after all). Then, when the Texas Forensic Science Commission started looking into the incident, he fired three of the members. As one admiring supporter said, “It takes balls to execute an innocent man.”
I suspect I’ll be writing more on the Gantry-Perry parallels—especially if Perry enters the presidential primaries—so for the moment I’ll just include one more passage from the novel. This one explains how Gantry becomes fluid in gospel talk, even though he is not a deep believer. I suspect that Perry picked up the language in a similar way, although perhaps more from church attendance than from college:
For all his slang, his cursing, his mauled plurals and singulars, Elmer had been compelled in college to read certain books, to hear certain lectures, all filled with flushed, florid polysyllables, with juicy sentiments about God, sunsets, the moral improvement inherent in a daily view of mountain scenery, angels, fishing for souls, fishing for fish, ideals, patriotism, democracy, purity, the error of Providence in creating the female leg, courage, humility, justice, the agricultural methods of Palestine circ. 4 A.D., the beauty of domesticity, and preachers’ salaries. These blossoming words, these organ-like phrases, these profound notions had been rammed home till they stuck in his brain, ready for use.
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