Elmer Gantry can be seen as a study in hypocrisy. But what, for me, made it interesting was the way Lewis added real complexity and subtlety to the character of Elmer. Most of the time I found his double standards, cruelty, philistinism and intolerance completely deplorable. But he does feel some genuine enthusiasm for his `calling', and he does sometimes seem to try to do the right thing, admittedly not to any very great effect. I loved one chapter describing his journey to his new parish. It begins with him selflessly and heroically, as he thinks, helping a woman carry her bags off the train, goes on to chart his feelings of irritation as his welcome turns out to be less respectful and delighted than he had hoped, and ends with him experiencing a twinge of lust for his landlady's fourteen year old daughter.
Elmer succeeds in deluding himself that he is a true servant of God, at least some of the time. Oddly that makes him less of a hypocrite than some of the novel's most attractive characters who profess Christianity but are secretly atheist or agnostic. But their behaviour is consistently far more `Christian' than that of Elmer, who uses the most ruthless means to achieve his ends. The satire of the evangelical movement is effectively biting, particularly the portrait of the preacher Sharon Falconer. She is another strange character, more than a match for Elmer, a shrewd businesswoman, whose precise attitude towards the message she preaches remains curiously difficult to fathom.
The loosely episodic structure of the novel made it just a little rambling and repetitive at times - it's not quite such an artistic success as `Babbitt'. But it offers a fascinating depiction of early c.20 America - and much of Lewis's satire still has relevance today.