Rebecca L. Davis is the Miller Family Early Career Professor of History at the University of Delaware. In her new book, Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions that Changed American Politics, she documents famous changes-of-heart from across the twentieth century, noting how the public reception of each was influenced by important political and cultural trends.
ECM: Over the course of the twentieth century, the religious conversions of famous people generated an immense amount of public interest. Why did average Americans feel so invested in personal decisions made by celebrities?
RLD: These conversions generated a lot of public interest because they spoke to broader cultural anxieties at work across the United States in the middle of the twentieth century. These included questions of personal authenticity and fears about brainwashing, among others. In the context of the anti-communism that preceded and followed World War II, there was a lot of concern about communists in our midst—people pretending to be patriotic Americans who were actually subversive agents of the Soviet Union. The first religious conversions that became cultural events of the sort that I discuss in the book were among Americans who were explicitly describing their religious conversions as an ideological defense against communism. That’s not to say that they weren’t sincere in their belief—I think they were. But at the same time, they argued explicitly that being converted—to Protestantism, to Roman Catholicism—offered a way to protect the American mind and soul from the danger of infiltration by communist ideas.
ECM: The first example you consider is that of Clare Booth Luce, who converted from Protestantism to Catholicism in 1946, and in 1947 published a series of magazine articles explaining “the ‘real’ reason” why. How is her situation representative of the tendency that you describe?
RLD: Discovering the sensation that Clare Booth Luce’s conversion made was one of the first surprises in my research for this project, and something that really sent me down the trail of archival research to learn more. I was stunned that more historians hadn’t talked about how culturally significant her conversion was. Luce was a member of Congress serving her second term from a district in Connecticut, she was a renowned playwright, her husband was Henry Luce, the incredibly influential magazine publisher. So her decision to become a Roman Catholic made waves. A lot of people wrote her supportive letters, a lot of people wrote very critical ones, and of course she decided to defend her decision in a series of articles for McCall’s. The more I learned about her conversion and the public response to it, the clearer it became to me that she had created the model for the politically significant religious conversion. It’s a model that others would follow later on without giving her much credit, and I don’t think that historians have given her enough credit for how politically and culturally important her conversion turned out to be.
ECM: Whitaker Chambers left the Communist Party and became a Christian to great celebration, and his sincerity was never really questioned in the way that a conversion from Christianity to communism might have been. Does this suggest that, in the public mind, sincerity depends a lot on what the figure is converting to and from?
RLD: Absolutely. I think that Chambers is a good example of how these religious conversions packaged together several ideas that were important at the time. His conversion was emblematic of the intense anti-communism of conservative politics in that moment. It was an early example of the melding of Christian fervor with anti-communist conservatism. But it was also important because of the way that it featured a kind of heterosexual family morality as part of what the conversion had accomplished. In his memoir, Chambers wrote that he had heard the voice of God as he gazed at his young daughter, he was converted at that moment, and he knew immediately that he had to leave communism. In a statement he delivered to the FBI, Chambers revealed that he had had sex with men while he was a Communist, but claimed that he had rejected same-sex desire when he converted to Christianity.
Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.