In American literature, the biggest religious pretender of all time is probably Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry. While most of us have not read the book, we may remember the movie. The film was a 1960 masterpiece starring Burt Lancaster in an Emmy-winning role as the charismatic but corrupt evangelist.
Gantry begins his career in the early 1900s at a Baptist Seminary in Kansas preaching at a little country church while trying to seduce the daughter of one of the deacons. Eventually he becomes a traveling evangelist who steals from the till, chases skirts, and stays drunk most of the time; but his preaching is phenomenal, so he always has a crowd.
After working his way through the Baptists and the Pentecostals, he becomes a Methodist, rising through the ranks until he is pastor of a huge church in New York City, and the president of the “National Association for the Purification of Art and the Press.” Gantry drew larger and larger crowds, and would personally lead raids on the red-light districts busting brothels, bars, and speakeasies.
He denounced all the other churches for their weaknesses, but was committing worse sins than the ones he was preaching against. As the old movie poster said, “Tell ‘em Gantry…save ‘em from sin. Just don’t tell ‘em about your own whisky and women.”
Granted, the evangelist type is an easy mark. Public religious figures are easily labeled as “hypocrites and charlatans.” Gantry wasn’t the first and he certainly won’t be the last. But his real wickedness was not his sins. We are all made of clay. It was his two-faced dishonesty.
He did what he did, not out of love for God, but out of love for the applause of the crowds. He did what he did out of pride, ambition, and self-glory. He was not performing for his Maker; he was performing for the audience. That is hypocrisy.