Victims and Poseurs: On Rebecca L. Davis’s “Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions That Changed American Politics”

February 12, 2022   •   By Atar Hadari

Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions That Changed American Politics

Rebecca L. Davis

REBECCA L. DAVIS begins the acknowledgments to her new book, Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions That Changed American Politics, with these words:

“I am the daughter of a religious convert, with clear memories of well-meaning childhood friends asking me, ‘Well, what are you?’ and of classmates at religious school observing, ‘But you don’t look Jewish!’ If those formative experiences piqued my curiosity about the subject of conversion, this project swept those interests in wholly unanticipated directions.”

The topics the book develops may be signaled respectively in those two sentences. Davis’s subject appears frequently to be how people objected to the publicly acknowledged changes of religious identity by Americans over the 30 years or so of what might be termed America’s Cold War era. Her terrain is major political conversions — from Clare Boothe Luce’s embrace of Catholicism in 1946 to Chuck Colson’s conversion to evangelical Christianity in 1973 — though she follows her converts, among them Sammy Davis Jr. and Muhammad Ali, to the very ends of their respective theological and political journeys.

Chapters cover two main tropes, though her treatment of the material tends to be similar. In the first, a convert is sincere, but the clergy involved are overtly or by implication more interested in what the famous person can do for their faith than in the needs of the individual. In the second trope, the convert is not sincere but rather using the public profession of faith to solve a PR problem arising from previous sexual, political, or criminal associations. Thus, an opening chapter on Luce — the playwright, journalist, and congresswoman — outlines both the personal needs and the theological problems solved through conversion for a genuine spiritual seeker but suggests that Luce was exploited by “convert-making” Jesuit priests and media-savvy bishops. There follows a chapter on “Cold War Disclosures” in which a parade of political operators, from Whittaker Chambers to Louis F. Budenz (editor of The Daily Worker) to “former Soviet spy master” Elizabeth Bentley, are depicted as having used religious conversion as a sponge to wipe away both inconvenient political associations and politically inexpedient homosexual liaisons.

The chapters continue to alternate between these two tropes, with one contrasting Sammy Davis Jr.’s conversion to Judaism with those of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Davis suggests that the rabbi who taught Monroe was a mercenary publicity-seeker, while Davis’s rabbi, Max Nussbaum, is portrayed as disinclined to rush a conversion. Davis is careful in her chapter on Ali (a.k.a. Cassius Clay) not to portray either Elijah Muhammad or Malcolm X as cynical careerists, but still the introduction of Malcolm X ends: “Released on parole in August 1952, he headed to Detroit. Over the next ten years Malcolm X became Elijah Muhammad’s trusted minister, a sought-after orator, and a renowned convert seeker.” And Davis says of Ali:

More so than any American religious convert since Clare Boothe Luce, Ali stood in the spotlight of his renown and declared that his new faith gave his life purpose because it reshaped his identity. While many Protestants criticized Luce for misunderstanding God’s revealed truth or being misled by corrupt priests, Ali was not believed to have the mental capacity to weigh one set of options against another. And unlike the ex-Communists, for whom religious conversion offered political legitimacy and lent credibility to assertions of newly normative sexuality, his conversion raised doubts about everything about him: his patriotism, his boxing title, and his masculinity. […] Clay’s conversion became indicative of the susceptibility of Black men to the Nation’s controversial message, at once indicating weakness and threat.

One of the strengths of Davis’s exploration of Luce is her finely grained use of the endless letters Luce got from a range of Protestant ministers and laypeople objecting to her conversion in strenuous and more or less reasoned terms. There are some telling quotations from newspaper stories about Ali, and some about Davis, but no equivalent trove of material to lend the same authoritative texture to her treatment of any other converts, and in the absence of such gritty detail Davis’s tendency to regard most clergy with caution lends her accounts — most especially on the former communists and on Colson, which puts him in company with Patty Hearst and Manson murder convict Susan Atkins — a tone that suggests she views the whole venture of conversion as highly doubtful. The range of religions covered adds to Davis’s habitual cocked eyebrow a danger of misinterpreting milieus she doesn’t appear to understand in any depth. How many historians in America today could speak in credible detail about an individual’s religious experience in the social contexts of Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, evangelical Christianity, Hare Krishna, and more, in a single book?

Passages such as this demonstrate her ability to get into the head of a subject she does consider sincere with considerable subtlety:

Davis identified with the Reform rabbis he met. They were entertainers, just as he was. They were cool. Rabbis possessed qualities that Davis coveted. Lacking a formal education, Davis reveled in the aura of intellectual gravitas that rabbis exuded. The rabbi was the consummate intellectual and a skilled entertainer; he embodied the quality Davis wished for but lacked and the attribute Davis most esteemed in himself.

Rebecca L. Davis offers no proof for this reading of Sammy Davis Jr.’s character other than his saying that the first rabbi to visit him in hospital after the car accident that prompted his conversion was “an athletic looking man in a khaki suit and a button-down collar,” to which she adds the observation that, “unlike the bearded rabbis Davis encountered during his childhood in Harlem, this rabbi impressed him.” There is no other mention of bearded (presumably Orthodox) rabbis, so again I have no way of assessing her characterization, but unlike her portrait of Luce, which only occasionally transcends two dimensions (“Roman Catholicism became Luce’s lifeboat”), this guess as to why Sammy Davis Jr. was attracted to Reform rabbis seems plausible, perhaps because the author shares the feelings she attributes to the convert. As an Orthodox Jew, I find entirely different qualities charismatic in a rabbi and would have been more likely to respond to the quiet expertise of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the sort of bearded figure one might have encountered on the Lower East Side, but still I find the portrayal of Davis as an entertainer impressed by people he saw as fellow entertainers astute.

Yet even in this chapter where the author knows most whereof she speaks, there are readings of the social milieu that may be disputed. A description of a “roast” of Sammy Davis Jr. at the New York Friars Club says that Pat Buttram, “a white comedian from Alabama, noted that if Davis came to his home town, ‘they wouldn’t know what to burn on the lawn.’ These jokes presented Davis’s Jewishness as absurd and made light of threats against Black lives.” This fails to see how such jokes were actually acknowledging racial tensions rather than dismissing them. Would she similarly dismiss Woody Allen’s contemporaneous routine about the Jew who dresses as a Moose to go to a fancy-dress party and gets run down on the way home and mounted on the wall of the country club? The punch line touches on Jewish exclusion from such elite venues: “And the joke’s on them because it’s restricted.” Are such jokes dismissive of slights to Jews, or only dismissive when told to a convert?

Sympathy for Sammy Davis Jr. and his rabbis is contrasted to the author’s response to Monroe’s and Taylor’s conversions, which were less threatening public stories but also offered opportunities to view the conversions as further tales of innocents in the hands of rapacious clergy. In Sammy Davis Jr.’s conversion, Max Nussbaum is portrayed as a voice of caution who urges his charge to consider first the faiths of his parents, but in speaking of Taylor, the author is much more critical:

Nussbaum wanted Taylor to become a model convert, much as Fulton Sheen and Edward Wiatrak urged Clare Boothe Luce to make her religious conversion the basis for a global mission. […] Having himself survived an anti-Semitic attack, Nussbaum welcomed Taylor, “because I know that you will be a great asset to us.”

In this account, Nussbaum does not sound at all like the kind of hipster Sammy Davis Jr. admired. There is a lot of detail about Taylor’s pledge to buy $100,000 of Israeli bonds and then this sentence: “Her whiteness and her Zionism nevertheless underscored Jewish fascination with ancestral descent, which typically prioritized Ashkenazi Jews over those who traced their ancestry to the Middle East or global South.” Thus, two unrelated phenomena are welded together as if one explained the other.

Elsewhere, Davis notes that, “by the 1960s, liberal and conservative Jews increasingly described Judaism as more than a faith, attributing their deeply held political perspectives to a wellspring of ethnic inheritance.” I would read the social context differently and suggest that American Jews by the 1960s were largely assimilating and increasingly intermarrying. Zero Mostel’s son noted of his father’s performance in the role of Tevye in the 1964 Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof that, when the character rejected his third daughter’s intermarriage, Mostel gave the line “No!” full force, because that is how Mostel’s own mother had greeted the news of his own intermarriage. So “Jewish fascination with ancestral descent” is a polite way of saying that, when Jews stop practicing their faith in every aspect of their lives (which is what the song’s opening number, “Tradition,” was about), they necessarily have to consider Judaism an ethnicity instead, an identity that a convert cannot acquire.

Davis’s narrative staple is that converts have a bad time, female converts more so. What about Cold War conversions that do not fit this trope? What about Leonard Cohen and his recalibration of his life as a Buddhist monk? What about Bob Dylan’s highly public — and musically successful — dalliance with evangelical Christianity? Dylan eventually found his way back to Judaism via Chabad Hasidism, but the avoidance of such subjects makes me wonder if Davis is only really interested in those she can cast as victims or poseurs.

A concluding chapter puts all of these stories into the context of a present day in which “[s]ectarian divisions that once made religious conversions controversial were subsumed into a bifurcated political landscape that sorted beliefs according to ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ above all other distinctions.” Alas, this era’s divide between the secular and the religious pervades all Davis’s readings of the motivation of her converts. She refuses to enter into the spirit of the Cold War era, which was not necessarily more innocent but where public discourse had not quite eliminated any middle ground. I recently read John Lewis Gaddis’s 2011 book, George F. Kennan: An American Life, which had no aspirations to the breadth of Davis’s survey but nonetheless managed to explore a kind of quasi-religious public servant’s intellectual life during the Cold War without the sort of hindsight that Davis often seems circumscribed by. Perhaps Gaddis started his project long before the age of Trump or even Obama and thus didn’t read the Cold War through that prism. But there is also the question of breadth. I first read Kennan in the 1980s, while taking a two-semester course on the Cold War as an undergraduate, and I remember telling my instructor that I aspired to write a religious version of Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore (1962) charting the lives of US religious thinkers. He said, “That sounds like a lot of work.” Davis’s survey, with its welter of examples from a wide range of milieus, makes me realize just what he meant.


Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik (Syracuse University Press, 2000) was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award and his PEN Translates Award–winning “Lives of the Dead: Collected Poems of Hanoch Levin” appeared in June from Arc Publications. He received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Daniel Landes and was awarded a PhD in Theology from Liverpool Hope University for a thesis on Jewish commentators in William Tyndale’s translation of Deuteronomy and its revisions into the King James Bible.