Last month Rebecca Davis, professor and author of Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions That Changed American Politics, sat with assistant professor William Schultz for a conversation about her book; hosted by the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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.
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.