There’s something exhilarating about “playing devil’s advocate”—you get to poke holes, and you don’t have to mend any. Perhaps that’s why most of the combatants in the “culture war” spend more time railing against alleged evils (whether it’s gay marriage or prayer in public schools) than they do supporting positive proposals. It also makes for more entertaining political theatre.
This principle is at the heart of the Netflix biopic The Most Hated Woman in America, which tells the story of the provocative and bristly Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of the American Atheists and a key player in a landmark Supreme Court decision that prohibited mandatory Bible-reading in public schools. The film focuses on the sordid end of O’Hair’s life in an effort at detailing how the prickly and provocative behaviors that landed her a national platform also provided her a host of personal and professional enemies. But Melissa Leo makes for far too likeable of a grumpy grandma for the point to really stick. Instead, the story of O’Hair’s rise to national stardom provides a fascinating and important look at the flaws of both sides of the “culture war.”
The documentary portrays O’Hair as a passionate “non-conformist” willing to pick a fight anywhere she can find one, from joining a lunch counter protest against segregation to railing against the convictions of her devout Christian father. After one fight culminates in a controversial Supreme Court decision, she discovers that people are willing to support her work, and she begins building a platform and securing financial support to found American Atheists. Before long, she’s hosting rallies on college campuses and giving radio and television interviews about her latest cause.
‘In a bizarre way, O’Hair’s story may sound oddly familiar to anyone who grew up in or around the “other side” of the fight: A passionate woman finds purpose fighting the supposed evils of the surrounding culture, comes to enjoy her status as a polarizing troublemaker, and ends up profiting from the outrage of both her supporters and her detractors. The Most Hated Woman does an excellent job at revealing the fundamental contradiction of O’Hair’s life—that while she spent it fighting against the evils of organized religion, she also built an elaborate organization around her beliefs and embezzled large sums of money. More than either celebrating or discrediting O’Hair, however, The Most Hated Woman highlights the disastrous allure of oppositional politics.
While O’Hair did not intend to become the face of “freedom from religion,” she did entertain an infatuation with the notion of being a “revolutionary.” Early scenes with her eldest son, Bill, feature romanticized notions of an “us against the world” perspective, and in one interview she ribs, “I do love a good fight. And taking on God and the church is kind of the ultimate, isn’t it?” In one of the most powerful moments in the film, an upbeat “This Little Light of Mine” serves as the backdrop for a sequence of scenes showing the creation and growth of the American Atheists. O’Hair tapes newspaper clippings with headlines like “The Devil’s Daughter” on the walls of her mother’s dining room, and she unwraps a box of magazines bearing the headline “Most Hated Woman in America” to the cheerful applause of her staff.
With just a few specifics stripped away, O’Hair’s fight could look like any other. She and her sons reference “the cause” repeatedly, and it’s clear that everything from the original court case to the later battles are about a larger (and ill-defined) ideological fight. She joins her first protest at the precocious prodding of her young son, but by the time she’s collecting donations and setting up her office, it’s clear that she enjoys being defined by her opposition more than anything else. She has an axe to grind, and she sees a potential battleground everywhere. One of her causes—contesting the inclusion of “One Nation Under God” in the pledge of allegiance—even comes from a fiery editorial against O’Hair, which prompts her to acknowledge it’s “actually not a bad idea.”
After O’Hair’s initial celebrity over the Supreme Court decision, she keeps up her public profile with a series of appearances, including a public debate with the ostentatious Reverend Bill Harrington. The two decide they have the makings of a successful business on their hands: two flashy personalities, one controversial topic, and plenty of mixed motives. O’Hair tears pages from a Bible on stage while Harrington’s voice booms through a packed auditorium about “lakes of fire.” The point might be delivered with a heavy hand, but it also does the job, illuminating some uncomfortable parallels between O’Hair and Harrington and the worlds they represent.
After one debate, Harrington praises O’Hair: “You were on fire tonight, darling. Every time you tear into this Bible, I save another 50 souls.” Neither of the “preachers” are really interested in genuine converts—a point evidenced by O’Hair’s disregard to her granddaughter’s earnest question, “Do you think we won anyone over?” Instead, the two debaters want little more than to wage battle and make national headlines—and a decent paycheck along the way. Regardless of the nobility of their original intentions, they both build a platform on one form or another of righteous indignation instead of constructive activism.
The Most Hated Woman isn’t trying to condemn any and all forms of organization or advocacy, though. Earlier, for instance, the film includes another parallel between a shot of Billy Graham preaching about a “spiritual revolution” that condemns materialism and crime and one of O’Hair’s first rallies, where she proclaims that atheists want “disease conquered, poverty vanished, and war eliminated.” Each side has a genuine desire to make a difference, even if their bright-eyed optimism quickly gives way to cynicism and greed.
It might be unexpected, but there’s an important lesson for evangelicals in a film about one of America’s most famous (or infamous) atheists. Historically, both sides of the culture war found power in a primarily oppositional posture, and we are still experiencing the consequences of those tactics today. As The Most Hated Woman so incisively portrays, there’s something exciting about picking a fight, and “movements” are often born in and fueled from the fires of outrage.
American Christians today have been fundamentally shaped by this kind of political activism. Before the sexual revolution of the 1960s, evangelicalism avoided any particular political allegiance. But when social choices threatened to undermine the moral influence of the church, Christians were politically galvanized, largely under the leadership of the “Moral Majority.” Both of these movements—the proponents of progressive social change and religious conservatives fighting it—have been highly influenced by the antagonistic and oppositional nature of their initial clash. At this point, basing political strategy and activism in opposition has become the norm.
The Most Hated Woman isn’t a documentary, and it certainly isn’t pretending to be perfectly historically accurate. It does, however, draw out some of the real underlying issues still impacting politics today—obstructionism as rallying cry, opposition as primary political strategy, and obscenity or spectacle as a substitute for real argument. Rather than romanticizing or demonizing either side, though, it humanizes both. Few truly intend to get into the culture war business, but genuine conviction and a desire for purpose can propel people into these roles.
In his brilliant book about the state of the American church, Life on the Vine: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit in Christian Community, Philip Kenneson writes that during the heat of the “Moral Majority” fervor, Christians learned to function as another interest group among many. “As a result,” Kenneson notes, “we find ourselves offering not an alternative vision of how God would have us live together that is rooted in God’s peace or wholeness, but merely a legislative agenda we would like to see advanced that would make us feel more at home in society.”
The Most Hated Woman shows the destructive nature of such oppositional tendencies for either side. For American evangelicals, both the passion and the missteps of Madalyn Murray O’Hair reflect our own history, making her legacy a much-needed invitation to shape a better path forward.
Kaitlyn Schiess is a freelance writer and blogger and is currently pursuing a Master of Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. She writes regularly at Christ and Pop Culture and her blog, Letters from the Exile.