restricted access Damning Fundamentalism: Sinclair Lewis and the Trials of Fiction
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Damning Fundamentalism:
Sinclair Lewis and the Trials of Fiction

But the question remains: why, at a moment when religious and religiously tinged conflicts are erupting around the globe and shaping US policy both domestically and internationally, has the discourse on religion and the appropriate education of students for citizenship come to be dominated almost entirely by the issues debated eighty years ago in the Scopes trial?

—Tracy Fessenden, Culture and Redemption

At the heart of America's battles between religion and science lies a simplistic but persistent epistemology. Critiqued from a wide range of disciplinary angles, but still regularly deployed by scientists, clergy, and others, this ideology of objectivity assumes that human beings can neutrally access a certain, provable knowledge—whether about God or the cosmos—that exists without any regard for interpretive position.1 It is equally endemic to school district battles over biology curricula, door-to-door and media-based proselytism, atheistic pronouncements about religious delusions, and, in a post-9/11 world beset by school and university massacres, even the martyr videos of various suicides. Indeed the ugly face it puts on religion sometimes tempts one to regard all references to matters of ultimate concern or the transcendent as inherently antihumanist. Doing so, however, requires us to pretend that absolutism in the United States is entirely [End Page 265] a religious phenomenon and not also a reactionary legacy of modernism. Concentrating on literary and cultural developments of the 1920s, this article instead indicates that there has long been as much blurring as friction between US religion and science. Beginning with the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, I point out the irony that various modernists critiqued fundamentalists for an absolutism they in fact shared, and I argue that, regardless of whether they realized it, Clarence Darrow, Sinclair Lewis, and H. L. Mencken were concerned less with religion per se than with religion presenting itself as a knowledge independent of prior assumptions.

While I will be using literature to make an argument about a particular moment in American history, I also want to demonstrate how distinguishing between presumptions of religious certainty and a self-jeopardizing, less comfortable faith might transform readings of "secular" texts. Taking as my central example Lewis's 1927 best-seller, Elmer Gantry, and reading it against Main Street, Babbitt, and especially Arrowsmith, I outline the celebrated debunker's aversion to religious absolutism and his enthusiasm for scientific research. To this extent Lewis belongs on the side of the modernists, and indeed Elmer Gantry has often been reduced to a polemical assault on popular religion. However, read with a more careful eye to historical context and narrative structure, Lewis's work also epitomizes literature's capacity to open pathways beyond our culture's binary tendencies. While sharply criticizing many facets of early-twentieth-century Protestantism, Lewis's best novels search for a way of being in the world that also opposes technology-driven capitalism, and they astutely critique science's tendency to become its own pursuit of transcendence. Perhaps surprisingly, when engaged with this awareness, Elmer Gantry opens space for a non-dogmatic, openly subjective faith by exposing the fear of risk that regularly characterizes religious and secular rhetoric alike. Recognizing this possibility via fiction requires special attention to the way Lewis's sentences, paragraphs, and chapters proceed via a strategy of intentional self-contradiction that shifts from realism into satire. Approaching Lewis's work with an eye to functional rather than merely substantive religion—practice, not just doctrine—I ultimately aim to widen vistas onto both religious and scientific pursuits of knowledge in modern US fiction and culture.

My approach to Tracy Fessenden's question about the enduring tie between American religion and an eighty-year-old Tennessee court battle, then, begins with the atmosphere of religious and scientific absolutism in which evolutionary theory first gained lasting, nationwide attention in the popular media. It is rarely remembered that many late-nineteenth-century Protestant reactions to Darwin's ideas were quite positive and that the growing fear of science in the [End Page 266] late 1910s and early 1920s, although closely related to fundamentalism, was by no means an exclusively Christian or even a...


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