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.