Elmer Gantry: Why Christians Need to Be Able to Defend Their Faith

We are excited to see the movement of prayer that has begun to take shape at Iron Works. In response, we’ve received this blog submission from Jim Cicman, who's been thinking about ways to respond to the relationship between Christianity and the culture. We invite others to share their responses to this movement as well. 


1 Peter 3:15 (NIV) reads in part:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.

Yet the current cultural climate is extremely hostile toward Christians and Christianity, making any defense difficult. Too often, Christians retreat to the safety of their churches, social groups, and groups of other like-minded individuals. But I think this is an untenable reaction. I think the unfair treatment of Christians and Christianity must be answered or those who are on the fence in regard to Christ may very well reject him outright if they see His very followers refuse to defend their faith intelligently.

Elmer Gantry is a satirical novel by Sinclair Lewis that was written in 1927. It was turned into a motion picture in 1960. It details the rise of Elmer “Hellcat” Gantry in evangelical circles. Without disclosing too much of the plot in case some of you would like to read the novel, Gantry is the epitome of hypocrisy. The first words of the novel read, “Elmer Gantry was drunk.”

As the novel progresses, Elmer realizes that he can use his not inconsiderable oratory skills to manipulate people to his profit via the vehicle of Christianity while all along being able to maintain a pious exterior with trappings of intellectuality. Minor characters in the book who are Christians are portrayed as rustic ignoramuses, anti-intellectual, anti-science, and so on. Indeed, Elmer Gantry, though written in 1927, almost reads like the story of today’s fallen televangelists.

I do not want to give the impression that no hypocrisy exists among professing Christians and that no criticism is ever warranted, but it can’t be denied that Christianity is under attack. Of course it’s been under attack since Christ and the disciples walked the earth, but in our contemporary times, it has been especially under assault. Christians need to be able to answer this criticism with such facts as:

  1. Christianity, despite everything, has been an overwhelming force for good in the world.

  2. The modern concept of freedom comes from Christianity, which manifested itself in our Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

So if we are to reach people for Christ, our defense must be twofold: a gospel-answer to the hope within us, and a corrective answer to the caricature held by many.

Yet whenever some critic of Christianity, thinking himself witty, attacks our faith unjustly and is not answered, it gives his argument a kernel of legitimacy. I for one want Christians to be able to have such facts as mentioned above at their disposal to answer these mocking critics in a gentle and respectful manner. Otherwise only Elmer Gantry will speak for us in the minds of many.