The following is a guest blog post by Rebecca L. Davis, author of Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions That Changed American Politics. 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.
We have reached the season of repentance, for Jews, as the celebration of the Jewish new year on Rosh Hashanah leads ten days later to Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement.” The period in between these two days is considered for seeking forgiveness, a sort of last chance to make amends with God and with fellow human beings, before God seals the “Book of Life” until next year’s reckoning. As I approach that season, I am struck both by how important repentance was to the people I write about in Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions that Changed American Politics and by how often fears of false belief motivated their religious transformations. And in the case of Chambers and some of the other figures in my book, I can’t help but note how important sex was to their narrative of spiritual redemption.
Whittaker Chambers reached middle age convinced that he needed to atone for his sins. As a younger man, in the 1920s, he had joined the Communist Party member, and he worked as a Soviet agent in the mid-1930s. He became the middle-man of an espionage network, ferrying classified documents from moles within federal agencies to the “handlers” who shuttled back and forth to the Soviet Union.
News of the Soviet purges and rumors of the disappearances of disillusioned party members led Chambers to reconsider his loyalties. Sometime between 1937 and 1938 he deserted his post. He hid with his family in nondescript hotels and slept with a gun by his side, fearful that Soviet thugs would assault him at any moment. He had been led astray by the promises of a Communist utopia, he decided. He had betrayed his country, and in doing so, had abandoned the promise of democratic freedom.
The goon squad never showed up, and Chambers eventually settled on a farm in Maryland, traveling by train to New York City for appointments with his new bosses, the editors at Time magazine. He wrote about foreign affairs, but his submissions returned to the moral necessity of preserving democracy in a world tending toward authoritarianism. Everything hung in the balance, he warned his readers. And God was watching.
By the time Chambers sat before camera crews in a packed Congressional chamber in 1948, the humid August air leaving sweat stains on the back of his rumpled suit, he wanted to come clean in part because he had experienced a religious conversion. As he subsequently wrote in his memoir, Witness (1952), it was not only fear of Soviet agents but a revelation of God’s role in creation that inspired him to abandon the materialist philosophy of Communism. In the book, Chambers explained how awareness of God’s presence in human creation led him to see the lie of materialism. (He was baptized in the Episcopal Church but soon joined a meeting of the Society of Friends.)
Yet much like so many other former Soviet spies who went on to testify before Congress, Chambers laid most of the blame at the feet of other people. While Chambers testified to his own involvement in an “apparatus” that pilfered documents from federal agencies, he more consequentially said that Alger Hiss, a highly regarded State Department official, had belonged to that Washington, DC spy ring. When Hiss categorically denied even knowing who Chambers was, Hiss was charged with perjury. The “Hiss-Chambers” trials helped launch the home front of the American Cold War, in which the fear of Communist infiltration in every branch of government and private industry spurred furious attempts to root them out and expose anyone associated with Communism.
It turns out that when Chambers confessed his sins in Witness—confessed what he believed to be his sins—he left out the sex. The details of those sins came to light years later when historians got their hands on a confidential statement that Chambers gave to his FBI handler in the late 1940s. While working in that Soviet apparatus, he explained, he had engaged in numerous sexual affairs with men in Washington, DC and along the highways that led him back and forth to his comrades in New York City. His new awareness of God—his religious conversion—meant for Chambers a rejection of homosexuality and infidelity. He renounced his sexual sins and committed himself to being the sort of devoted family man that he and others considered foundational to the preservation of American democracy.
For Chambers as for the many other ex-Communists who embraced God, converted, and became FBI informants, the sin was false belief. He had allowed his mind to be led off course by wrong thoughts. Having sex with men was not an indication of submerged desires or an expression of an innate identity but rather another fruit of that poisoned tree. By becoming a vocal anti-Communist, he believed he had paid his debt. Fellow anti-Communist conservatives agreed. They celebrated Chambers as a heroic defender of American freedoms.
Religious conversions often originate in deeply personal reckonings with past actions and painful experiences. But they can also provide the impression of moral seriousness, particularly for individuals marking dramatic political shifts. Chambers helped popularize the idea that a religious conversion could prove the authenticity of a dramatic political transformation, even as his own confession played with the truth.
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.