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

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7741-5
    Published: August 2023
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-6487-3
    Published: October 2021
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-6488-0
    Published: September 2021
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-6207-5
    Published: September 2021

Buy this Book

For Professors:
Free E-Exam Copies

To purchase online via an independent bookstore, visit
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

"Fascinating . . .Public Confessions offers readers ample opportunities to ask themselves whom they believe and why, as well as what might make their own professions of faith believable to a watching world."—Christianity Today

"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

"The importance of the book . . . is about the mixing of religion and politics in US public life, often blurring the line between religious beliefs and political agendas."—Catholic Standard

"This book is for anyone looking to understand the nuanced relationship between fame, religious identity, and US politics."—The Christian Century