Public Confessions: the religious conversions that changed American politics

By Rebecca L. Davis

Reviewed by Daniel Brown


Some prominent Americans in the 20th century underwent a religious conversion that became integral to the narrative of their lives. The figures selected for this study list heavily to the right, to homophobia and to patriotism. This pastiche examines society’s political perception of public conversions, even some questionable ones like Larry Flynt, Bob Dylan and Susan Atkins, but little of the religious journey of conversion. The author identifies this phenomenon as conservative Christian Ecumenism in the Republican Party. In the 40s and 50s, the fashionable Clare Booth Luce, converted by Fulton Sheen, and the bland Whitaker Chambers had little in common but their anti-Communism and conviction that liberals were fellow travelers. Conversion, with its sense of authenticity and belonging within a community of believers, became an ideological antiseptic for former communists like Chambers and Louis Budenz, another Sheen convert. When Sammy Davis converted to Judaism, he said his new faith best expressed and affirmed what he already believed. Muhammad Ali defied a white establishment’s expectations of what they felt a good boxer should be. It had to be brainwashing. Being Muslim meant being an outsider—until it didn’t--and George W. Bush gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. Chuck Colson held that individual redemption was the key to national renewal. A darling of the right, he began a vigorous prisoners’ ministry without leaving neo-liberalism, military power and patriarchy.