“If there really is a God, I dare Him to strike me dead in the next fifteen minutes!” Sounds pretty nervy, doesn’t it? But has anyone ever actually said it—and lived? The answer turns out to be an agreeably complicated story, featuring a number of central figures in the history of secularism—and a consistent failure of the Divinity to rise (or descend) to the challenge.
Let’s start with a well-documented case of “The Dare,” involving the Nobel Laureate novelist Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951) and set in early twentieth-century Kansas City. Lewis was doing research for Elmer Gantry, his scathing depiction of the venality of Midwestern fundamentalist preachers. As part of that preparation, he held Wednesday lunchtime sessions of what was called “Sinclair Lewis’s Sunday-School Class,” and he even gave talks in the churches of some sympathetic pastors. That process reached a peak on April 18, 1926, when Lewis was speaking at a forum in the Linwood Boulevard Christian Church. Reports differ on what he said, but given his position as one of America’s preeminent writers, it’s no surprise that a national uproar ensued.