The Religious Conversions That Changed American Politics

By Eric C. Miller | October 19, 2021

Boxing champion Muhammad Ali prays at a mosque in 1975.

The global competition between capitalism and communism began to implicate the hearts and minds of Americans around the middle of the twentieth century. Questions of conscience, belief, and commitment arose, and Americans were scrutinized for conflicts, disloyalties, and deceptions. For some public figures, including Clare Booth Luce, Sammy Davis, Jr., Muhammed Ali, and Charles Colson, the decision to convert to a faith became unavoidably tangled in the fevered suspicions and anxieties of the age. In her new book, Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions that Changed American Politics, Rebecca L. Davis tells their stories and others. “Their conversions spoke directly to questions of whether and how different kinds of faith variously anchored or undermined American freedoms,” she writes.

Davis is the Miller Family Early Career Professor of History at the University of Delaware and the author, previously, of More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss. The recipient of a Public Scholar Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities, she is a distinguished lecturer for the Organization of American Historians and a producer of the “Sexing History” podcast. Eric C. Miller spoke with Davis about the book over Zoom. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Religion & Politics: 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?

Rebecca L. Davis: 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.

R&P: 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.

R&P: 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.

In the book, I try to describe how these conversions—the way they were popularized, and the way they functioned in American culture—melded together popular ideas of political authenticity, religious sincerity, and sexual normalcy when the convert had embraced a particular constellation of Judeo-Christian faith, as well as how these very same cultural ideas were used against converts who broke that mold, whether by converting to a faith that wasn’t normatively Christian or Jewish, pushing against racial norms, or otherwise violating widely shared public expectations.

R&P: Following the Korean War, a number of American POWs refused repatriation, prompting a national conversation about “brainwashing.” What effect did this have on the discourse around religious conversions?

RLD: We can see this concern with communist mind-control in many of the anti-communist memoirs that came out in the 1940s and 50s. That concern was amplified after the Korean War, when about two dozen captured American soldiers decided to remain in North Korea and China and live as Communists. The American interpretation of that—the explanation offered by the friends and families of these young men—was that they had been brainwashed. The term was a rough translation of a Chinese word, and its usage in this instance is what first popularized it in American speech. It provided a vocabulary for articulating what Clare Booth Luce had sought to describe several years earlier, that the world might be saved from communism, not by military force, but by steeling individual minds against the possible invasion of communist ideas. The POW episode really speaks to this pervasive concern in the post-World War II United States that minds could too easily be taken over and redirected toward an evil purpose.

We like to think of American soldiers as quintessentially virtuous, strong defenders of American democracy and freedom. The soldiers who refused repatriation completely shattered that idealized vision. There are a whole host of questions that are far beyond my research about what, in fact, led those men to remain as Communists. Were they subjected to torture? Were they manipulated? What happened to them? I don’t think we really know. But a whole strain of psychology developed around brainwashing—what it is, how it happens, by what stages it proceeds, etc.

Then, in 1964, when Muhammad Ali was getting ready to fight Sonny Liston, all these quotations started to appear in American newspapers accusing Ali of having been brainwashed. It was the first time that I had ever seen that term applied to a religious convert, and I think it’s notable that he was the one to whom it was applied. So I tried to trace this continuity from a particular strain of anti-communist American politics to the pervasive question of religious authenticity, of whether a convert is sincere or fake or simply duped.

R&P: Was there something particular about the Nation of Islam, or about Ali himself, that made him vulnerable to that critique?

RLD: It’s both of those things. The mainstream Black press, which is where you find a lot of the articles about Cassius Clay and, later, Muhammed Ali, loathed the Nation of Islam. There were never any complimentary articles about it in Ebony, or Jet, or the Pittsburgh Courier, or any of the other Black newspapers. So, when anything happened involving the Nation of Islam, the Black press generally took a pretty negative view of it. In the mainstream white press, the treatment was similar. There had been a recent television special called “The Hate that Hate Produced,” indicting Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammed as demagogues who roused supporters by preaching hatred of white people. So, even as the Nation of Islam was attracting unprecedented numbers of Black Americans, establishing new temples and growing congregations across the United States, both the Black press and the white press treated it extremely negatively.

As for Muhammed Ali himself, Jonathan Eig has written a phenomenal biography that makes an incredibly compelling case that Ali likely had a severe learning disability. He performed terribly in school and very famously performed terribly on the Army induction tests when he was drafted. Eig goes on to suggest that Ali’s struggles with literacy helped to shape both his creativity in the ring and his playfulness with spoken language, as well as inviting derision and contributing to the public perception that he was not very intelligent.

Together, these factors prompted Ali’s father, Cassius Clay, Sr., to accuse Elijah Muhammed of brainwashing his son. He had a low opinion of the Nation of Islam and a low opinion of his son’s intelligence.

R&P: When Sammy Davis, Jr., converted to Judaism in the 1950s, he found himself amid a similar whirl of questions about his religion, race, and culture. How was his conversion complicated by these factors?

RLD: Sammy Davis, Jr. was incredibly famous already in the 1950s. Halfway through the decade, he was in a terrible car accident and nearly died, but he did lose sight in one of his eyes. As he would tell the story later, as he was recovering, he had these interactions with rabbis in the hospital and some other experiences that persuaded him that he should be Jewish. This was pretty outrageous to his critics, for two reasons. One was that he never described his conversion as some grand transformation. He had the audacity to suggest, as a quirky, small-framed, Black entertainer, that he had always been Jewish. This was the faith to which his soul had always subscribed, and now he had found both a way to express it and a community that would embrace him in that identity. The second was that there were not, at the time, many Black Jews. He compounded that problem by claiming that the history of African Americans and the history of the Jews have pronounced and important parallels. He argued that, not only was it not anomalous for a Black person to be Jewish, but it was completely logical given that comparable history and experience. He encouraged other African Americans to look to Judaism for examples of resilience in the face of persecution, examples of how to survive and thrive under oppression. He said all of this at a time when the prophetic Protestantism of Martin Luther King, Jr., was the prominent religious voice giving shape to the civil rights movement. Davis defied that mold, insisting that he could be an active participant in civil rights as a Black Jew, and he did remain very involved.

R&P: Throughout the book, except in the case of a few obvious hucksters, you seem to grant that the conversions you consider are sincere. But you seem a little skeptical of Charles Colson. Do you doubt his sincerity?

RLD: I can see how you might draw that impression. The fact is that the historian has no idea whether a convert’s conversion is sincere or not, short of finding a diary entry that says, “Ha! I got them! I made it all up!” and we generally do not find that. I certainly didn’t find it in this case. But whether or not Chuck Colson was sincerely born again, he used that experience in a way that reflected his entire career as a political operative. He knew, maybe better than anyone except Clare Booth Luce, how to come up with slogans and catchphrases that seemed to say one thing but in fact said another. The “Southern Strategy,” for example. He wouldn’t go out and say explicitly that his plan was to aim racist appeals at white, Southern Democrats to bring them over to the respectable “Silent Majority” within the GOP. He wouldn’t say explicitly that he was opposed to integration. But he and his colleagues in the Nixon Administration were masters of the dog whistle message that used comparatively benign, inoffensive language to draw out and reinforce ugly opinions and emotions. He was central to the crafting of Nixon’s political strategy in 1968 and 1972. So, when he later spoke and wrote about faith, it remained difficult not to read him through that lens.

When he created and developed Prison Fellowship Ministries, in the 1970s and 80s, he never took much of an interest in reforming the criminal justice system or addressing the racial inequities driving mass incarceration. He was interested only in generating Christian conversions. He used the language of “freedom” and “liberation” often, but only in the sense of freeing the souls of people who would remain behind bars. In that way, his public advocacy before and after this conversion seems more consistent than changed. And he was instrumental, I think, in establishing that sort of rhetoric within the conservative movement.

R&P: Looking back over this expanse of time, all the examples you consider, and the various trends in politics and culture that influenced them, is there an overarching moral to the story?

RLD: I don’t know that I’m prepared to offer a moral lesson, but I can say that one of the things that captivated me and kept me interested over the ten years that I spent writing the book was the way in which seemingly straightforward descriptions of new faith could encapsulate a whole host of political and cultural ideologies. It’s never just about religion. A lot of other historians have done extremely important work showing how these religious conversations after World War II offer ways to describe a particular political economy, that they are relevant to race relations and racial justice. I have tried to show how gender and sexuality figure into these conversations, to see how the grand narrative of post-World War II religion and American politics engage continually these questions of gender identity and sexual normalcy, and how the ideal of political authenticity that emerges has racial as well as sexual scripts written into it.

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