The Religious Conversions That Changed American Politics
- ISBN: 9781469664873
- Published By: University of North Carolina Press
- Published: May 2021
Much attention has been paid to the role of religion in shaping the American political landscape, yet the impact that individual, publicized conversions have made on that very landscape has received comparatively little. Nor has the social and political context been brought to bear on the motivations of both converts and those goading them on. Rebecca L. Davis boldly takes up this task in her book Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions that Changed American Politics.
Focusing on the religious conversions of well-known figures in post-World War II America, Davis contends that these bold conversions are often a mix of pious sincerity and political guile. Since the former can’t be fully discerned, Davis does a deep dive into the more instrumental nature of these conversions while eliding their supposed metaphysics. And her discovery is both alarming and insightful—that the lion’s share of her selected conversions operates in the service of America’s chosen narrative, which valorizes freedom over authoritarianism; a clear mind over a brainwashed one; and, oddly, conformity over communities that have never conformed. It is the religious conversion of public figures that does some of the work of the American cultural elite. These conversions blunted either the narrative that Americans were no longer free under the threat of Communism or that the uneducated were susceptible to manipulation, as evinced in conversions to faiths that were deemed scary. We must ask out of the gate: do conversion stories encapsulate true religion, or are they part political maneuvering and part genuine religious conversion? We may never know, but Davis provides at least a possible answer.
On the micro-political level, Davis suggests that many highly publicized conversions in the latter half of 20th-century America were purely exploitative. Religious leaders often welcomed high-profile converts simply to burnish their tradition’s image, while the converts themselves often joined a new religion only to improve their public image. In both cases, Davis argues, certain public conversions were more manipulative than genuine, although she acknowledges that we can never know the level of insincerity. Conversions that lead to very public confessions are likely pursued for this end alone, since confessions choreographed for the public often generated more good will than typical political processes.
Davis’ first case study centers on Clare Boothe Luce and her conversion to Catholicism from Protestantism in 1946. Luce was a well-known playwright, journalist, and congresswoman; her conversion turned heads. As Davis explains it, Luce’s conversion was prompted by Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen, a major figure in the Catholic Church. He helped convince Luce (or cajoled her into believing) that Catholicism was the best home for her after the death of her child. She willingly joined, at the cost of her political future. Davis notes that aligning oneself with Catholicism in the United States was dangerous business, especially during the Cold War. But Luce bravely embarked on this trail. However, Davis argues that Luce’s decision was likely driven by a combination of sincere faith and political calculation. According to Davis, Luce’s conversion performed multiple feats. By making the radical choice to join a religion that was scorned at that time, Luce shielded herself from the perception that she, as an early female politician, was ingenuine, and Davis believes that Luce followed her heart. Luce’s political calculation can’t be dismissed, but Davis’ nuanced treatment of her conversion reveals that even sincere acts can serve political ends.
Davis’ approach to Muhammad Ali is understandably different. She details Ali’s public conversion to Islam (more specifically the Nation of Islam) in 1964, after his title-conquering victory over Sonny Liston in 1964. As she does with Luce, Davis couches Ali’s sudden conversion in terms of religion and politics, but the radical conversions of a super-celebrity like Ali lands differently. As was the case with Luce, Ali’s conversion was viewed with suspicion, but the very legitimacy of his decision was also called into question. Ali was widely deemed a victim of brainwashing, embodying the trope that Black men were especially susceptible, at that time, to theologies that would simply overwhelm them. Davis carefully points out the truth: Ali knew exactly how his conversion to the Nation of Islam would land and he decided to do it anyway. Davis describes Ali as a person whose conversion had political consequences, but who didn’t care.
Davis next turns her attention to Charles Colson, a Nixon lieutenant who was thrown in jail for his role in Watergate. Importantly for Davis, his conversion to Evangelical Christianity (before he was incarcerated for seven months) was prompted by a reading of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Colson’s conversion, especially after he was released from prison, became politically significant, to the point that he was later honored by Presidents Reagan and Bush. His conversion was less political than the other subjects who Davis explores, and Colson’s conversion seemed more sincere than those of his predecessors. Davis implies that Colson’s sudden conversion was more genuine, lacking political motivations, and perhaps this is true. Colson’s activities after prison suggested a truly impactful conversion.
For all of her wonderful work, Davis’ book occasionally lacks historical detail (the meticulous accounts of Luce and Ali notwithstanding), which suggests that Davis already looked askance at public conversions before she wrote the book. While this suspicion is warranted in my eyes, it seems to prevent a deeper dive into the biographical/historical material that could help us analyze Sammy Davis Jr.’s or Marilyn Monroe’s conversions with similar scrutiny. By throwing these two figures into her book, along with others, Davies presumes that they converted with similar political motives as those who were given a much more robust treatment.
One could argue that the yoking of a conversion experiences to political expediency is cynical and falls short of capturing the genuine nature of anyone’s conversion. But as Davis makes clear, she is merely addressing the conversions that helped drive American political history. Very few conversions rise to that level. And more importantly, Davis consistently reminds us that public conversions comprise only a very narrow slice of American religious and political history since the middle of the 20th century. Her take on selected public conversions (which are simultaneously confessions, as the book title suggests) is as measured as it is profound. Public conversions contained a gravity during this period that moved the needle of public discourse. Davis is wise to raise them to our attention.
Jeffrey Scholes is associate professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy and director of the Center for Religious Diversity and Public Life at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.Jeff ScholesDate Of Review:February 28, 2023