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.”