Kudos to Anthony Hales

Published 1:26 pm Friday, March 20, 2009


In Chapter 26 of “Elmer Gantry,” Sinclair Lewis’s great satire of fundamentalist Christianity, Gantry forms an ecumenical “Committee On Public Morals” in order to “wage open war on the forces of evil” (primarily alcohol) which he claims are threatening “the morals of youth and the sanctity of domesticity” in the fictional town of Zenith. Clergy from all the Christian denominations of the town, the local rabbi, “four moral laymen” and a lawyer comprise the committee. Gantry’s purpose is to bully the committee members into taking vigilante action against the town’s various “dives” and houses of ill repute, Gantry, of course, being the self-anointed leader.

The reactions of the different ministers at the initial meeting brilliantly satirize the stereotypes associated with their denominations. The most sensible input comes from the Roman Catholic priest, who says: “My church, gentlemen, probably has a more rigid theology than yours, but I don’t think we’re quite so alarmed by discovering the fact, which seems to astonish you, that sinners often sin.” He thus exposes the basic flaw in the fundamentalist moral argument, which is that sin can be stamped out by making it illegal.

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I was reminded of this scene when I read Patricia Older’s article “Supervisors Face Liquor Issue” in the March 10, 2009 Picayune Item. If only I had known, I would have bought a ringside ticket.

My hat goes off to Board President Anthony Hales for standing up to the bullying of the Baptist preachers and their supporters, who demanded that the Board of Supervisors take a formal position against a bill in the legislature that would designate some areas of Pearl River County as resorts and legalize liquor sales in those areas. Hales’ position—which makes sense to me—was that this is a legislative matter, and citizens with concerns should contact their representatives directly. This obviously did not placate the preachers. Apparently Supervisor Hudson Holiday tried to play both sides against the middle, voting to send the legislature a statement opposing the bill (but only on grounds of discrimination), while admitting to “occasionally” imbibing.

Apparently the preachers and their retinue didn’t like Hales’ point that there are “many more sins” than drinking alcohol, e.g., racism, but that it is only the alcohol issue that “brings people out the woodwork.” I note that the same March 10 edition of the paper had an article about Mississippi being the third largest consumer of internet porn in the nation, and it is well known that we lead the pack in teen pregnancy. Further, Mississippi’s history provides abundant proof that racism does, in many instances, literally kill.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan have religious police patrolling the streets, arresting and sometimes torturing and jailing people for not covering their heads (women), not wearing beards (men), displaying too much flesh, not attending prayers, and, yes, for consuming alcohol. This should be enough to make us pause and consider whether we really want a fundamentalist Christian theocracy in Mississippi or America. Would it really be any less evil than those Islamic theocracies we find it so easy to condemn? After all, we already tried that in colonial Salem, Massachusetts, with rather unpleasant results.

Willard M. Tucker