On The Selfish Theory of Love with Elmer Gantry

Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry




By David Arthur Walters

Love, though for this you riddle me with darts

And drag me at your chariot until I die, –

Oh, heavy prince! Oh, panderer of hearts! –

Yet hear me tell how in their throats they lie

Who shout you mighty: thick about my hair

Day in, day out, your ominous arrows purr,

Who still am free, unto no querulous care

A fool, and in no temple worshiper!

I, that have bared me to your quiver’s fire,

Lifted my face into its puny rain,

Do wreath you Impotent to Evoke Desire

As you are Powerless to Elicit Pain!

(Now will the god, for blasphemy so brave,

Punish me surely, with the shaft I crave!)

– Edna St. Vincent Millay –


We speak of the power and god of love. And what do we love most of all? We love life, and we might, given our underlying crisis or hypocrisy, destroy the world to have and hold it forever, here and/or in the hereafter, if you insist. Your beloved abandons you and you are angry and depressed, because, you say, you love him so much that you cannot live without him, even if he is your worst enemy besides the self who would keep him around; he confirms you in your existence and you depend on him although he might make you miserable. But, honestly, whom do you actually love the most? What is this power named love? Love is your very life. You love your life first of all; but of course you need another, part friend and foe, hopefully more the former than the latter, to be yourself; not someone identical to you, but someone you can be with; for if you were actually at-one with another, you would have no identity of your own, having died in fatal embrace – it is not the death of your existence, but rather virtual omnipotence in the bliss of irresponsible ignorance. Indeed, identity requires the very relationships we complain about because of our differences: our ‘original sin’, so to speak, of being born individuals. Have faith and hope and charity, for you can live without the lover who takes flight, or the lover from whom you fly. If you understand and accept whom you really love, and fly to love from love, for love’s sake, you will have as many lovers as you please, even when you happen to be home alone with the loving spirit. Love is not its name.

For example, read Lewis Sinclair’s exposition on love in Elmer Gantry

“(Elmer) had laid in a fruitful theological library. He had bought the fifty volumes of the Expositor’s Bible – source of ready-made sermons – second hand for $13.75…. In fact he had a sufficient library –‘God’s artillery in black and white,’ as Bishop Toomis wittily dubbed it – to inform himself of any detail in the practice of the Professional Good Man.”

Evening service at the Banjo Crossing Methodist Church:

“His text was from Galatians: ‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace…. Love! Love! Love! How beauteous the very word! Not carnal love but the divine presence. What is love? Listen! It is the rainbow that stands out, in all its glorious many-colored hues, illuminating and making glad again the dark clouds of life. It is the morning and the evening star, that in glad refulgence, there on the awed horizon, call Nature’s hearts to an uplifted rejoicing in God’s marvelous firmament! Round about the cradle of the babe, sleeping so quietly while o’er him hangs almost in agonized adoration his loving mother, shines the miracle of Love, and at the just sad end, comforting the hearts that bear its immortal permanence, round even the quiet tomb, shines Love…. What is the mother of art, the inspiration of the poet, the patriot, the philosopher, and the great man of affairs, be he businessman or statesman – yes, what inspires every effort save Love? …And what is music, lovely, lovely music, what is fair melody? Ah, music, ‘tis the voice of Love! …Ah, Love, Love, Love! Without it, we are less than beasts; with it, earth is heaven and we are as gods!”

Yet Love, as far as Elmer Gantry had learned, did not exist before God: “Yes, what is that Love – created by Christ Jesus and conveyed through all the generations by his church, particularly, it seems to me, by the great, broad, democratic liberal brother of the Methodist Church – that is what it means to us.”

As we well know, Elmer Gantry’s love was beastly love. He loved sex more than the idea of love, and alcoholic spirits inspired him more than the Holy Spirit. Cleo, the woman he would marry but would not love, said after his sermon, “Oh, Reverend Gantry, this is the greatest day our church has ever known!” “Did you like what I said of Love?” “Oh…Love…yes!” The Professional Good Man and Captain of Souls was duly impressed with himself. He had hypnotized Cleo. Sleepwalking, she did not know she was holding his hand as they left the church, and ‘Of her tranced holiness he felt a little awe.’

Jean Simmons as Sharon Falconer
Jean Simmons as Sharon Falconer


He truly loved his late mentor, Sharon Falconer, the pioneering woman evangelist who had taken him under her wing and had in effect made him what he was, a confidence man bound and determined to be a Professional Good Man and Captain of Souls. “Her presence nearly took away his need of other stimulants, of tobacco and alcohol and most of his cursing.” He “loved her fondly” not when she was an incalculable, intimidating, passionate priestess, a “looming disaster,” or a “chilly business woman,” but rather when she was in her “quite authentic” or original role, that of a little girl; that is, “except when she assumed it just as she was due to go out and hypnotize three thousand people,” as that would be disastrous for the salvation business. She was a charlatan of sorts, but sincere in her desire to believe in Love. And she loved Elmer enough to want his greatness, for the greatness of her protégé would prove her own:

“You will be big!” she had told him. “I’ll make you! And perhaps I’m a prophetess, a little bit, but I’m also a good liar. You see I’m not a Falconer. There ain’t any! My name is Katie Jonas. I was born in Utica. My dad worked in a brickyard. I picked out the name Sharon Falconer while I was a stenographer…. And yet I’m not a liar! I’m not! I am Sharon Falconer now! I’ve made her – by prayer and by having a right to be her. And you’re going to stop being poor Elmer Gantry of Paris, Kansas. You’re going to be the Reverend Dr. Gantry, the great captain of souls!”

Sharon Falconer knew Elmer Gantry was unfaithful with women; for example, she caught him wooing Lily, her pianist; nevertheless, she wanted love for herself, wherefore she was more than willing to forgive and forget when he crept to her beside to plead his innocence: “Oh, lie, lie, go on lying! Tell me a good strong lie that I’ll believe! And then kiss me!”

In truth, they were in love with themselves. And in truth, Sharon Falconer, the acclaimed evangelist, was not a Christian, certainly not a Protestant; she was the one and only Goddess, the Mother of the Cosmos incarnate. The stage below the altar in her private temple and boudoir was filled with what Elmer Gantry called “heathen idols” including a three-headed god, ape-headed gods, crocodile-headed gods and the like. Catholic iconography enshrined the room. She had him kneel beside her on a long and soft velvet cushion before the altar, and then proclaimed: “It is the hour! Blessed Virgin, Mother Hera, Mother Frigga, Mother Ishtar, Mother Isis, dread Mother Astarte of the weaving arms, it is thy priestess, it is she who after the blind centuries and the groping years shall make it known to the world that ye are one, and that in me are ye revealed, and that in this revelation shall come peace and wisdom universal, the secret of the spheres and the pit of understanding…” They prayed together, Elmer Gantry reciting the Song of Solomon in regards to the excellence of the feet, thighs, hands, breasts and hair of the ancient prince’s daughter. Her novice was naturally taken in and initiated by Sharon Falconer after she “sank into his arms, her lips parted.”

Sharon Falconer’s charity was limited to saving souls, over and over again, for they were predestined to backsliding, and to healing diseases, which became the key to her financial success: “It was not her eloquence but her healing of the sick which raised Sharon to such eminence that she promised to become the most renowned evangelist in American. People were tired of eloquence…. But they could be healed constantly.” Her income soared, but she had corresponding expenses including Elmer’s salary, which she had raised accordingly; and then there was her charity, the Old Ladies Home – Elmer never learned exactly where it was.

The “looming disaster” personified by Sharon Falconer was realized on a New Jersey pier which she converted into “The Waters of Jordan Tabernacle.” Here she would be able to keep all the income for herself as she would not have to share it with local churches. From this lucrative venture would be launched a ship bearing her power that would save the whole world. A cross lighting up the night with yellow and ruby light bulbs rotated above it. We who have read the book or have seen the movie starring Burt Lancaster know the terrifying story well. The tabernacle caught on fire. Most of the crowd got out on the shoreward end of the structure, but some of the choir in the back were blocked from that exit. There was a back door. Sharon urged them to be calm, saying she would lead them to safety if only they would trust in the Lord God of Hosts. But they ignored her. Elmer pleaded with her to go out the back door with him, but she persisted in her salvation role; he told her to go to hell, and headed to the back door, which opened inwardly and was blocked by people; he furiously managed to open it just enough to get himself out to leap into the water. The rest died –all told, one hundred and eleven people perished including Sharon Falconer. Elmer then managed to rescue thirty people who had already made it to safety, including a woman who had already touched bottom in the water.

Pray tell, then, whom did Elmer love but his ideal self? And whom did Sharon love but her ideal self?

Fortunately, Selfish Love has a built-in consolation, that love for one’s self implies love of one’s kind.




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