The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair
By Bryan F. Le Beau
386 pages; $29.95
Madalyn Murray O'Hair has been gone for nearly a decade, so readers may have to strain mightily to remember her. One bogus petition occasionally makes the rounds asking all God-fearing readers to write to the FCC to protest her supposed attempt to ban religious broadcasting from the airwaves. Before I dove into University of Missouri history professor Bryan Le Beau's new biography of the famed atheist, I last ran across her name as part of a Progressive interview with Phil Donahue. "Oh, she was fabulous," Donahue said as part of a reminiscence about the golden days of '70s daytime television. My remark at the time, to no one in particular, was, How about that—a dinosaur praising a fossil.
The Supreme Court case that made O'Hair a household name—Murray v. Curlett joined with Shempp v. School District of Abington Township— was handed down in 1963, and school districts ceased to make any real attempts to hold public prayers or Bible readings shortly thereafter. By the time I went to public school in the mid '80s, "see you at the flagpole" before-school prayer sessions were controversial and valedictory addresses in certain litigious districts routinely had any references to God or the Bible scrubbed out in advance.
The stubborn O'Hair had taken the Almighty to court and won, and she was hardly magnanimous in victory. Unlike the Shempps, a family of Pennsylvania Unitarians, she exulted in her victory and used it to transform herself into a lightning rod for controversy. Though the title "most hated woman in America" might have been empirically true for a brief time, she embraced the label and fully exploited her notoriety. Donations helped to bail her out before the Murray decision, when she lost a government job, and after, when she decided that speaking for secularism was both the best and most economically feasible option.
However, her utter inability to moderate her message or show any sign of respect for anyone who disagreed with her cost her dearly. Many atheists and freethinkers couldn't stand O'Hair's grating tone or her imperious attitude, and she loathed them right back. Le Beau reports that she went ahead to create American Atheists based on only a handful of letters, which she passed off as a groundswell of popular support. Because of ongoing problems involving her son William, his girlfriend, Maryland's statutory rape laws, and assault charges (she and William got into a dust-up with local cops), she and her family fled to Hawaii. The island paradise, she thought, would be more tolerant of religious dissenters, and the cost of extradition might dissuade Maryland police.
Of course, Madalyn being Madalyn, she started stirring it up as soon as she touched down in Honolulu. First, she filed suit on behalf of her younger son, John Garth, to have the pledge of allegiance thrown out of public schools, on account of the "one nation under God" bit. Then she filed a complaint with the FCC against every single radio station on the islands to force them to sell her primetime airtime at the same "preferential rates" granted to religious programming. When Maryland authorities pressed for extradition and Hawaii refused to block it, she fled again to Mexico. She escaped jail there only by ratting on a local drug ring and promising never to come back.
You might think that the Madalyn Murray O'Hair who reemerged in the 1970s would be chastened—but you would be so very, very wrong. When she finally ironed her legal difficulties out, she published her manifesto, Why I Am an Atheist, and demanded an end to tax exemption for churches, the chaplaincy in the army, and favorable religious broadcasting laws. In fact, I would argue that the O'Hair that most people remember is not the O'Hair of Murray but the abrasive media figure of early '70s television that Donahue was so fond of.
But fame is a fickle thing. As time wore on, and as O'Hair proved unable to translate her bombast into accomplishment, people lost interest and talk shows stopped booking her. Some fun was had when her son William converted to Christianity and started preaching against his mother. And there was a brief resurgence of interest after she disappeared in 1995 and again, in 1999, when her remains were discovered, along with the bodies of John Garth and her granddaughter Robin, murdered by a former office manager for spite and for money. Her son William claimed the remains and buried them in an undisclosed, unmarked grave, to keep what was left of O'Hair's following from treating her bones as holy relics.
Jeremy Lott writes the weekly "Latte Sipping" column for the website of the American Spectator.
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Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corners and Book of the Week include:
Divinely Decreed? | Re-fighting the Battle of Gettysburg. (June 27, 2003)
Why There Will Be Sidewalks in Heaven | Isaiah and the New Urbanism. (June 9, 2003)
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Facing the Past Günter | Grass and the debate over Germans as victims in World War II. (May 19, 2003)
Are Movies Fundamentally Inferior to Books? | Two responses to Ralph Wood's claim that "biblical tradition elevates word over picture." (May 12, 2003)
Buffy and the Meaning of Life | Buffy the Vampire Slayer finally gets some respect. Too bad the life is slowly ebbing out of the show. (May 5, 2003)
Bird Watching with Anne Lamott | A PBS documentary enters the unruly, grace-filled world of the author of Traveling Mercies. (April 21, 2003)
A Story Darwin Might Love | Brian McLaren's evolutionary interpretation of the faith promises more than it delivers, but what it delivers is good enough. (April 14, 2003)
Why We Are in Iraq | Michael Kelly, R.I.P. (April 7, 2003)
Letter from Spain | A former resident returns to find that it is still stony ground for the Gospel. (March 31, 2003)
Lessons in Nation-Building From a Fledgling Democracy | Shays's Rebellion describes a time when revolution was no longer cool. (March 24, 2003)
Whose Reality TV? | Tune in this week to Frederick Wiseman's PBS documentary, Domestic Violence, to see some real survivors. (March 17, 2003)
Oh, Brother | Most everyone agrees that the James ossuary is a significant find. Ask what it means, however … (March 17, 2003)
Vanity Fair | A chronicler of religion plays the straight man. (March 10, 2003)
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