Faith in Democracy: An Excerpt from “Public Confessions”

The following is an excerpt from Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions That Changed American Politics by Rebecca L. Davis, now available in paperback wherever books are sold.

“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

Faith in Democracy

Picture the scene: The towers of Rockefeller Center cloak the gray stones of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in afternoon shadow as a car slows to a stop by the curb. Clare Boothe Luce, an acclaimed playwright, member of Congress, and wife of publisher Henry Luce, alights. Fashionably lean and expensively attired, she ascends several steps to a small plaza and passes through a massive bronze door. On this Saturday in February 1946, a few weeks shy of her forty-third birthday, she stands on the threshold of a new chapter in her storied but privately troubled life. She has experienced too much loss to be idealistic, but she now believes in redemption, for herself and for the world. Pain and hope led her to this cathedral and to the man facing her. In moments he will cast out her demons, consecrate her conversion, and baptize her a Roman Catholic.

Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen is as meticulously clothed and coiffed as Luce is. A silk skullcap covers his immovable black hair; his deep-set eyes seem to blaze with intensity. For occasions such as this Sheen wears his formal vestments: a floor-length black cassock and a long, narrow stole that drapes downward from his shoulders. Famous for converting ex-Communists, several world-renowned musicians, and business titans including Henry Ford II, Sheen is minutes away from his most celebrated conversion of all. Luce and Sheen: even their names glow.

Clare Boothe Luce was one of the most admired women in the mid-twentieth-century United States, even if little remembered after her death in 1987. Her actions that February day at St. Patrick’s Cathedral made international news. Conversion to Roman Catholicism from Protestantism was the consequence of her most intimate struggles, but she and Sheen deliberately transformed it into a public confession of political resolve. At a time when a majority of Americans suspected Roman Catholics of being unpatriotic, Sheen and Luce insisted that their faith provided the best defense against Communist persuasion. They argued that the truths of Roman Catholic theology upheld democracy.

To her critics, Clare Luce’s Catholic conversion was outrageous. It was especially audacious coming from the wife of Henry Luce, the notably Presbyterian son of missionaries and the publisher of TimeLife, and Fortune. Surely, Clare was the victim of nefarious, authoritarian priests who co-opted her free will. The barrage of irate letters she received in response to the announcement of her conversion—an announcement she amplified in an article published across three spring issues of McCall’s magazine in 1947—indicated how much her public expression of personal faith pushed the acceptable boundaries of religious identity. So hostile were so many of these letters that she even lost a deal with McCall’s to write a regular advice column. The vitriol directed at Clare Luce presaged the upheaval that greeted other controversial religious converts in the decades after World War II.

Clare Boothe Luce was one of the most admired women in the mid-twentieth-century United States, even if little remembered after her death in 1987.

The religious conversions of certain well-known writers, entertainers, athletes, and politicians elicited frenzied responses. The importance of these conversions extended beyond questions of why certain faiths appealed to a particular individual or how believers experienced their spiritual journeys. Some notable converts described how they discovered their “real” self when they changed or discovered religion. Others spoke of spiritual transformations. In doing so, they offered ways for other people to imagine the outer limits of self-invention. Yet religious conversions in the decades after World War II equally raised fears as well as hopes. They provoked unsettling questions about the survival of individual autonomy amid a seeming surge of mass conformity. Had a person truly transformed, or were they “passing” or even brainwashed?

Consider the example of Whittaker Chambers, a former Soviet spy. Chambers rose to national notoriety in 1948, when he identified Alger Hiss, a former State Department official with a sterling reputation, as a member of the Communist underground. Over two trials that became emblematic of domestic anti-Communist fervor, Hiss swore that he had no connection to Communist espionage activities, but he was found guilty of perjury and spent eight years in prison. For his part, Chambers credited his newly adopted Christian faith with inspiring not only his rejection of Communism but also, he privately confessed, the end of his sexual interest in men. Liberals who defended Hiss were unconvinced. They circulated rumors that Chambers was a “queer” and sought proof that his conversion was a fraud. If religion could help individuals like Chambers go straight, evidence of religious artifice might illuminate sexual as well as political deceptions. The authenticity of one seemed to bear consequences for the veracity of the others.

Religious conversions in the decades after World War II equally raised fears as well as hopes.

Other religious conversions sparked allegations of racial masquerade and ethnic betrayal. When the entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. converted from Protestantism to Judaism in 1960, his white and Black critics accused him of trying to pass as white or curry favor with Jewish audiences. Cassius Clay, who became Cassius X and then Muhammad Ali when he converted to the Nation of Islam in the 1960s, instigated even more outrage. His conversion cost him his title and the best years of his career. Allegations flew that the Nation’s leaders brainwashed him. Brainwashing, a term coined to describe supposed Communist mind control, became the default explanation for politically unpalatable religious choices.

Fears of false witness, imposture, and mind control influenced the very ways in which Americans responded to public confessions. Those fears grew from the often unspoken presumptions people held about what an authentic convert looked like or how one behaved. Individuals learned about these conversions with their own expectations already in place about what made a man masculine or a woman feminine, which behaviors signaled that a person was heterosexual or homosexual, and whether racial identities were permeable or fixed. They felt they knew what was normal—and what was not. The religious conversions this book discusses challenged those expectations, with the result that formerly unspoken expectations about sex, race, and authenticity grew more urgent within American politics.

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.