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Book Review: Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties and Today’s Culture Wars by Barry Hankins

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The decade sandwiched between the end of the Great War (1914-1918) and the Great Depression continues to fascinate the popular mind today. It was an era of stark contrasts and glowing optimism. Boosterism was the watchword in towns and cities across America. And booze was illegal, though all-too-readily available for those with thirsts to slake.

It was the age of George F. Babbitt and Elmer Gantry — two fictional characters created by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Sinclair Lewis — figures who embodied the zeitgeist. In fact, for many people business was religion, and religion was business. Even Jesus was reinterpreted for the masses, in a book by Bruce Barton. He was described as the most successful businessman of all.

And the Roaring Twenties were also very much about culture wars. A new book tackles the tension between religion and popular culture during that decade.

Historian Barry Hankins colorfully chronicles the spiritual and not so spiritual side of that vibrant decade in Jesus And Gin: Evangelicalism, The Roaring Twenties And Today’s Culture Wars. Hankins is a professor of history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Jesus and Gin reminds us that in many ways the scandals and sideshows defined the era. Religion was certainly important and widely professed, but even the man who led the nation as the decade got underway, President Warren G. Harding, seemed to embody the tension between righteousness and wickedness felt by so many. Hankins suggests that Harding “wore his religion on his sleeve and his morality not at all.”

The men who had returned from “over there” — late entrants into a war that was supposed to have ended all wars — and those who had kept the home fires burning, seemed to be ready to party. And party they did.

And that meant that there would be a counter-effort, one directed at recovering lost morality. Against this backdrop, Christian fundamentalism grew like wildfire, with H.L. Mencken remarking at one point “heave a egg out of any Pullman car in America and you’re bound to hit a fundamentalist.”

It may have been the age of the flapper and flivver, but it was also the age of celebrity members of the clergy — some serious, others sensational.

In Jesus and Gin we find portraits of religionists such as Billy Sunday, who for a time was among the most popular and famous men in the country. Aimee Semple McPherson made a name for herself as the first prominent female evangelist in America, then sullied that name in the minds of many with a mysterious disappearance and reappearance and a story that sounded, and likely was, rather fishy.

A Fort Worth, Texas preacher named J. Frank Norris shot an unarmed critic to death in a church office, leading to a sensational murder trial.

In fact, Hankins makes the point that, though some today see the Scopes Trial as the end of fundamentalism’s influence in the decade, “someone forgot to tell” McPherson and Norris. And he devotes an entire chapter to the fundamentalist-modernist controversy that divided mainline Protestant denominations in the 1920s, with a particularly close look at the liberal preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s famous sermon “Shall The Fundamentalists Win.”

Black preachers like Daddy Grace and Father Divine were attracting thousands of followers. They, according to Hankins, “became jazzmen preachers in an age of religious ferment.” And the great white hope of Protestant America, William Jennings Bryan, having lost three presidential elections as the Democratic nominee, had become the nation’s foremost spokesman for traditional Christian religion and values. He had the hopes and prayers of millions with him as he stepped into a Dayton, Tennessee courtroom in the sweltering heat of the summer of 1925 to go toe to toe with the era’s most famous “infidel,” Clarence Darrow.

And by the time the decade was beginning to turn a corner toward its end, the nation elected Herbert Hoover, someone who brought the most impressive resume ever to the White House. His election was, in many ways as Barry Hankins brings out, about religion and values. His opponent was New York Governor Al Smith — a man not only for the repeal of Prohibition — but also a Roman Catholic. Hankins suggests that the 1928 election was “a microcosm of the central elements of the culture wars of our own time.”

About David Stokes

  • Alan Kurtz

    It is indeed a fascinating period, David. Thanks for your review.

    It’s worth noting that most of the prominent religionists you mention are today remembered as scoundrels and charlatans, much like their fictional counterpart Elmer Gantry. Scandal never touched Billy Sunday, but he was much less popular during the ’20s than before the war. Scandal was, however, on intimate terms with Aimee Semple McPherson (shady associations and mysterious disappearance), J. Frank Norris (indicted for murder and acquitted on grounds of self-defense), Daddy Grace (funneled offerings from the pews into his personal investments in various commercial products), and Father Divine (found guilty of disturbing the peace and sentenced to a year in prison and $500 fine). Even Harry Emerson Fosdick was forced to resign his pulpit while under investigation for heterodox views. And William Jennings Bryan, a politician who lectured on religion rather than a preacher per se, is best known today as the thinly caricatured fool from Inherit the Wind, the mid-’50s fictionalized drama of the Scopes Trial. All of which suggests there was more fraud than faith among the era’s brightest-shining religious lights.

    I don’t follow, though, the purported connection, as stated in Hankins’s subtitle, between “Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties and Today’s Culture Wars.” You tell us, “It’s hard to miss some interesting parallels to what happened decades later–in 1980, to be exact, as groups like the Moral Majority organized to help elect Ronald Reagan.”

    But, David, this is not 1980. It’s 30 years later. Hankins’s subtitle refers to Today’s Culture Wars. You do cite a couple of possible parallels. “Booze was illegal, though all-too-readily available for those with thirsts to slake.” I suppose we could say that about marijuana, but it’s a pretty flimsy comparison. You also write, “Scandals and sideshows defined the era.” True in the 1920s and true enough now. But honestly, David, look back over our country’s past 100 years. When wasn’t it true?

    Some of your other descriptions of the ’20s don’t apply at all to 2010. “It was an era of stark contrasts and glowing optimism.” I remember glowing optimism during JFK’s Camelot era, but that lasted less than three years and hasn’t been spotted since. “For many people business was religion, and religion was business.” I agree that religion is still business in the USA, but I’m skeptical that “business is religion.” The corporate scandals and Wall Street ripoffs of the last couple of decades suggest that business as practiced in the United States is utterly devoid of moral or ethical considerations. I can’t conceive that its unscrupulous practitioners have ever been acquainted with religion.

    If I may, one final point in my overlong comment. “The men who had returned from ‘over there,’” you write about the doughboys of World War I, “late entrants into a war that was supposed to have ended all wars … seemed to be ready to party. And party they did.” Today we see no such thing. Sadly, our vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are often so physically disabled and/or psychologically traumatized that neither they nor we who welcome them home are in any mood to party. In this as in so many other things, the Roaring ’20s are a long way behind us.