Public Confessions

The Religious Conversions That Changed American Politics

By Rebecca L. Davis

256 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 11 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-6487-3
    Published: October 2021
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-6488-0
    Published: September 2021

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Personal reinvention is a core part of the human condition. Yet in the mid-twentieth century, certain private religious choices became lightning rods for public outrage and debate.

Public Confessions reveals the controversial religious conversions that shaped modern America. Rebecca L. Davis explains why the new faiths of notable figures including Clare Boothe Luce, Whittaker Chambers, Sammy Davis Jr., Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, Chuck Colson, and others riveted the American public. Unconventional religious choices charted new ways of declaring an “authentic” identity amid escalating Cold War fears of brainwashing and coercion. Facing pressure to celebrate a specific vision of Americanism, these converts variously attracted and repelled members of the American public. Whether the act of changing religions was viewed as selfish, reckless, or even unpatriotic, it provoked controversies that ultimately transformed American politics.

Public Confessions takes intimate history to its widest relevance, and in so doing, makes you see yourself in both the private and public stories it tells.

About the Author

Rebecca L. Davis is Miller Family Early Career Professor of History at the University of Delaware. She is the author of More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss.

For more information about Rebecca L. Davis, visit the Author Page.


"[A] sterling history of mid-20th-century religious conversions and the social issues surrounding them. . . . This impressive work captures a fraught period in American political and religious history with a clear eye and insightful reasoning."--Publishers Weekly, starred review

"[Davis] deftly connect[s] her history of public converts, who helped clarify voters’ views on race and democracy, among other issues, to the rise of the religious right...It isn’t hard to see the parallels for both Trump and Biden in Davis’s history...Like it or not, religion and politics find ways to mix. As issues of special religious significance—particularly abortion—heat up, it may be impossible for the president to escape the world that Davis outlines."--Washington Monthly

"The importance of the book, though, is not celebrity conversions. It is about the mixing of religion and politics in U.S. public life, often blurring the line between religious beliefs and political agendas."--Catholic Sentinel

“Through this richly textured and utterly engrossing account of the religious conversions of an array of prominent midcentury Americans, Rebecca Davis offers a fascinating window onto the shifting dynamics of twentieth-century faith and politics.”—Kristin Kobes Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation

“In this brilliant book, Rebecca Davis illuminates the religious conversions of prominent Americans in the postwar era and the public power of religion in America itself. Well researched and well written, Public Confessions is a must-read work of history.”—Kevin M. Kruse, author of One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America

“In this engaging, fascinating book, Rebecca Davis illuminates the many social, cultural, and political meanings of conversion. Davis shows how conversion, often seen as a matter of personal choice and identity, reflects larger issues of race, sex, gender, and history that create the conditions for these personal transformations. Written with flair and insight, this book examines the conversions of many well-known individuals, revealing little-known aspects of their lives and personalities. A great read.”—Elaine Tyler May, author of Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era