cover image Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions That Changed American Politics

Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions That Changed American Politics

Rebecca L. Davis. Univ. of North Carolina, $30 (272p) ISBN 978-1-4696-6487-3

Historian Davis (More Perfect Unions) wows with this sterling history of mid-20th-century religious conversions and the social issues surrounding them. Clare Boothe Luce, a playwright and Connecticut congresswoman, argued in the wake of her 1946 conversion to Catholicism that only that faith would work as a bulwark against “the infectious thrall” of communism. Cold War dichotomies propelled Alger Hiss’s accuser, Whittaker Chambers, to renounce communism for Quakerism—and Davis also stresses how his conversion papered over his homosexuality. Harvey Matusow, “a staggeringly prolific government informant” who admitted to fabricating lies about prominent media figures being Communist Party members, joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and, Davis contends, “embodied the modern American search for a religious ‘identity’ as an object of adult self-knowledge.” She also details the racism Sammy Davis Jr. experienced after his conversion to Judaism, as well as how Muhammad Ali’s joining the Nation of Islam caused rumors that he’d been brainwashed. Davis creates a propulsive image of American life in her depiction of “how religion mattered to democracy, mass culture, and authentic identity” during a time of many highly publicized conversions. This impressive work captures a fraught period in American political and religious history with a clear eye and insightful reasoning. (Oct.)