The Deal of a Convert

What public figures gain, or lose, when they switch religions.

Saint Augustine of Hippo, revered now as one of the most formative influences on Western Christianity, was once just a confused young playboy.

A childhood spent pilfering pears from his neighbor’s tree, shacking up with unmarried women, and fathering a child out of wedlock led him to an identity crisis at the ripe age of 31. Augustine realized the error of his ways when he heard the phantom voice of a small child calling to him. Over and over again, the voice chanted, “Pick it up. Read it. Pick it up. Read it.”

Public Confessions:
The Religious Conversions
That Changed American Politics
by Rebecca L. Davis
University of North Carolina Press, 252 pp.

Augustine interpreted the command to be about the Bible and flipped to the first passage he could find. As his eyes absorbed the divine content, he was transformed.

“Instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty, and all the gloom of doubt vanished away,” Augustine wrote in his now-famous tome Confessions.

Not only did he become a Christian, molding the Western canon of philosophy and religion for centuries to come, but as Rebecca L. Davis asserts in Public Confessions, Augustine originated a tradition of conversions on the public stage. By melding what had historically been an external process of movement from one group to another with the interior journey of discovering one’s self anew, Augustine set the stage for Clare Boothe Luce, Sammy Davis Jr., and Muhammad Ali, celebrity converts who Davis follows in her project to understand the modern-day formation of identity.

Public Confessions may be a book about conversions. But Davis doesn’t set out to fully excavate her subjects’ internal motivations. Instead, the history professor is concerned with how these public conversions tracked for an often skeptical audience and what they have to reveal about the ability of individuals to shape politics. In Augustine’s case, after converting, his sermons were raptly attended by dedicated adherents, and he went on to earn Christianity’s highest exaltation: sainthood. In the process, he became one of the most important and powerful public figures of his time. 

Davis, however, is much more interested in Augustine’s 20th-century counterparts, some of whom enjoyed a less favorable reception. Upon converting to Judaism, Davis Jr. lost his standing among fellow Black entertainers and throngs of Black fans. And after joining the Nation of Islam, Ali dodged the Vietnam War draft on religious grounds, prompting him to be stripped of his boxing titles and banned from competing anywhere in the United States. It’s clear, Davis argues, that converts’ stories had immense ramifications for society. They raised questions about “the role of religion in shaping public life.” They upended conversations about the Cold War, shaped the fight against communism, and changed the civil rights movement. They helped mold a political climate in which spirituality skewed political.

But while Ali’s conversion story and political beliefs are as legendary as his boxing career, Davis Jr.’s conversion was never thought of with the same gravitas. As Davis’s chronicling shows, the ways in which conversions skew politics depend heavily on the convert—and the way they carry their transformation out. When converts make politics an explicit part of their religious journey, faith becomes a tool they can wield to reshape public opinion. This was certainly the case for Luce. It was even true for Ali, who inspired thousands of students to also protest the war and emboldened Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to oppose the conflict. But it wasn’t true for Davis Jr., who framed his conversion in personal terms, only to be ostracized. His story shows that when public converts try to leave politics out of their voyage, politics will nonetheless find them.

The modern Republican Party has certainly learned this lesson. Its leading politicians have latched onto faith in explaining their agenda, both attracting and fueling the religious right. George W. Bush, himself a convert to born-again Evangelicalism, frequently spoke of God in justifying his policies: rolling back access to abortion; fighting gay marriage and gender parity; and supporting Israel. Donald Trump is a Christian in name only and a clear sinner (in that religion’s definition of the term). But he is beloved by Christian conservatives nonetheless because he’s been an even more effective advocate for these causes than Bush was. He, too, frequently ties them to the Bible, using religion like a weapon. In 2019, he told a group of Christian leaders that “every child, born and unborn, is a sacred gift from God.”

Democrats are far more hesitant to use religion in this way, and not without cause. The party is a big tent, and separating church and state is key to its platform. But Joe Biden is one of the most prominent and powerful Catholics on the planet. He is well positioned to argue that his religion calls for exactly the kinds of policies his party is pursuing. The president might have more success at driving progressivism forward if he didn’t shy away.

Davis begins the project with the story of Clare Boothe Luce, a Republican author and congresswoman who converted to Catholicism in 1946, inspired by what the faith had to say about sacrifice and loss after her daughter tragically died in a car accident. Immediately, the transformation grabbed headlines and made her, according to Davis, “one of the most famous Catholics in the world.”

Luce quickly used the religious attention to shape politics. In a famous three-part story for the women’s magazine McCalls in 1947, Luce argued that Catholicism was an age-old foil to communism and secular humanism, turning popular sentiment about the religion on its head. While many Americans at the time believed that supporters of the Catholic Church were antidemocratic, Luce wrote that it was the faith best suited to American democracy. Her piece, Davis writes, was a “watershed moment for American Catholics.” It helped normalize the faith and its role in public life, paving the way for John F. Kennedy.

The book grows even more intriguing when it arrives at the juxtapositional stories of Sammy Davis Jr. and Muhammad Ali—two Black Americans who chose different religions and strayed in divergent political directions as a result. Davis Jr. was drawn to Reform rabbis, identifying them as entertainers, just like him, but, as Davis describes, with an “aura of intellectual gravitas.” He was also drawn to Jewish men and their masculine style of “sartorial and intellectual sophistication.” During surgery after a serious car accident, he squeezed a Star of David emblem so tightly that it scarred his palm. Soon, the legendary Black entertainer charted his new religious path. 

Unlike Luce, Davis Jr. never made his conversion about politics. It was by all accounts something he did entirely for himself, not to motivate a greater cause. But politics and religion are almost always linked, and soon, the singer became a pariah among large swaths of the Black community. Sometimes, this was the product of viewpoints he adopted. Judaism inculcated a passionate adoption of Zionism, which ostracized him from other Black leaders who saw Israel’s military aggression against Palestinians as an extension of European colonialism. He embraced President Richard Nixon in the 1970s, believing his claims of support for bolstering civil rights, leading Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier to stop returning his calls.

While Muhammad Ali’s conversion story and political beliefs are as legendary as his boxing career, Sammy Davis Jr.’s conversion was never thought of with the same gravitas. The ways in which conversions skew politics depend heavily on the convert—and the way they carry their transformation out.

At other times, the backlash was simply a reaction to the fact of his transition. In a 1960 issue of Ebony magazine, he outlined in largely politics-free terms why he converted. (“I feel religion is a very personal thing,” he wrote in the essay’s second paragraph.) In a response letter, a reader dismissed his logic. “I think what he is really trying to do is get away from being a Negro,” the reader claimed. 

Following a different political direction, Ali became a student of Malcolm X, which set the Louisville teenager on a radical drift. His conversion was born of politics and connected, Davis writes, to a harsh criticism of American imperialism. Ali saw a link between the civil rights bona fides of the Nation of Islam and the plight of Black people worldwide. His activism turned off millions of white Americans, and made him into their sporting and social enemy. But it also made him a leading political figure among many leftists and people of color, both in the U.S. and internationally.

In the years following his conversion, Ali traveled to Africa, expressed his desire to fight with Egypt against the Israeli military, became a fierce Vietnam War critic, and practiced a pan-African anti-colonial globalism. Ali’s ability to de-fix his identity, claim a new one, and champion such a coherent and authentic set of political positions inspired legions of draft resisters and identity seekers alike. He was also devoutly engaged with the doctrine and politics of the turbulent Nation of Islam. Unlike in the film One Night in Miami, Regina King’s whimsical reimagining of a meet-up between Ali, Malcolm X, the footballer Jim Brown, and the singer Sam Cooke, where the four men spend a night discussing civil rights, the role of celebrity, and Ali’s lurking uncertainty about conversion, Davis writes that on the actual night, Ali spent hours lecturing Brown on the Nation of Islam and its more obscure religious tenets.

“Cassius Clay was a true believer, conversant in the Nation’s theology and single-minded in his devotion to it,”
she says.

Unfortunately, Public Confessions ends prematurely, right where the public’s interest in religion and politics is likely to begin—with an attempt to understand our current vexing political moment. The recent fight over vaccine mandates in the workplace and objectors seeking religious exemptions is just one area where readers could use the author’s wisdom. Will religion ultimately shape the way Americans view COVID-19 vaccines in the same way that it filtered our understanding of race and the Cold War? How many faith-based exemptions will employers and courts tolerate? For a book focused intimately on the ways in which religion plays out on the public stage and influences politics, Davis could have provided readers with a more forward-looking answer, rather than one almost entirely focused on the 1900s.

Donald Trump is a Christian in name only and a clear sinner (in that religion’s definition of the term). But he is beloved by Christian conservatives nonetheless because he’s been an even more effective advocate for their causes than George W. Bush was.

Nonetheless, we can extrapolate Davis’s thesis into the 21st century. She gives us a head start, deftly connecting her history of public converts, who helped clarify voters’ views on race and democracy, among other issues, to the rise of the religious right. From William F. Buckley to Nixon to Newt Gingrich, conservatives embraced the narrative of martyrdom and the weaponization of religion for “neoliberal economics, heterosexuality, and the GOP’s pro-military funding priorities,” she writes. Democrats, meanwhile, deemphasized faith, a step many leaders thought necessary in order to vocally support LGBTQ-friendly policies and abortion rights.

Our two most recent presidents are particularly extreme examples of these approaches. Trump may be a serial philanderer who made hush money payments to a stripper and commits constant biblical gaffes, and Biden may be a lifelong devout Catholic who speaks often of how his faith has guided him through personal tragedy. But Trump is beloved by white evangelicals, and Biden is being vilified by the institutional voice of America’s Catholic clergy. 

It isn’t hard to see the parallels for both Trump and Biden in Davis’s history. Luce, like Trump, had a politically motivated performance of religion that relied on partisan ideology as opposed to doctrine, and it gave her great power. Davis Jr., like Biden, embraced a religion predicated on spirituality rather than state affairs. The Biden–Davis Jr. comparison is particularly potent. “It’s personal to him,” Biden’s press secretary told reporters after the American arm of the Roman Catholic Church voted to draft guidance that would deny him communion. “He doesn’t see it through a political prism, and we’re not going to comment otherwise on the inner workings of the Catholic Church.” 

Today is not 1960, and the president’s caution might well succeed. But were she to weigh in, Davis might suggest that Biden probably has something to learn from Luce, who framed her belief in Catholicism as the be-all and end-all force to combat society’s ills and won over many hearts and minds in the process. To court voters and advance his agenda, the president could do something similar. The pope, after all, agrees with Biden that governments should abolish the death penalty, expand safety net programs, and fight against climate change. In claiming that Catholicism demands progressive actions, the president would be on solid canonical ground. 

Still, performing religion is complicated for a Democratic president. With a rapidly secularizing and disaffiliating constituency, any Democratic politician’s challenge is to band together a coalition of both religious and secular voters without alienating anyone in the process. With their homogenous audience, GOP performers are more likely to receive rave reviews. But that doesn’t mean Biden shouldn’t employ faith at all in articulating his proposals. 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.  

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Josh Axelrod

Josh Axelrod covers the intersection of faith and politics for The American Independent; his writing has appeared on NJ.com, CNN, NPR, and The Jerusalem Post.