A biographer of Madalyn Murray O'Hair explains the goals, impact, and legacy of America's most hated atheist.
BY: Interview by Rebecca Phillips
Bryan Le Beau is Dean of the University of Missouri at Kansas City's College of Arts & Sciences. He is the author of many books on American history and religion. His latest book is a biography, "The Atheist," about Madalyn Murray O'Hair. O'Hair gained notoriety for bringing the 1963 case Murray v. Curlett to the Supreme Court. The case, along with several similar cases, abolished school prayer in American public schools. She founded the organization American Atheists. O'Hair disappeared with one of her sons and her granddaughter in 1995. Her remains were found in early 2001. Le Beau spoke with Beliefnet recently about O'Hair's court case, American Atheists, and the battles she left unfinished.
You've written a few books about religion in America. What interested you in the story of this famous atheist?
I was interested in investigating the role of religion in Cold War America. I was particularly interested in Roman Catholicism, interestingly enough, because there were so many Catholic leaders involved in the anti-Communist movement. This period was probably the highest point of religion and religiosity in America, measured in traditional ways. So I bumped into the idea of atheistic Communism, and then I ran into the Murray case, and then into Madalyn Murray O' Hair. I thought I should look at the other side of the coin here, not just at religion, but at those who professed to be atheist in Cold War America. That's what led me into Madalyn.
If Madalyn Murray O'Hair had lived in a different time period, or even now, would she have been the same kind of person she was? Or was she such a strong atheist personality because she was in that anti-Communist, anti-atheist environment?
The timing directly impacted on her public visibility. The fact that she rose to prominence as she brought the Murray case during the waning years of the Cold War, at a time when people just did not understand and were viscerally opposed and antagonistic toward atheism, gave her the platform that she needed to gain national recognition.
She paid a very dear price, though, for establishing her national prominence in the early 60s. Once what we would ordinarily consider the more liberal 60s began, which really happened in the mid-60s, she was already so well established as a anti-establishment figure, that in many ways she was able to ride the wave, into that period. There were many radical reformers of one kind or another, so if she had waited a few years, she would have just been perhaps one of many radical leaders and reformers. She may not have gotten the notoriety that she did. If she had started too early, then maybe she would have simply peaked with that case and that would have been the end of it. So I think the timing was important.
How did O'Hair become the figure most associated with the school prayer case-even though her actual case, Murray v. Curlett, was peripheral to the main Supreme Court case, Schemp vs. Vitale?
She used the limelight. The Schempps did not want to be in the limelight, and when the case was over, they just simply went home and stayed undercover. Madalyn walked right out the front of the Supreme Court building, her son by her side, and grabbed the microphone from the press and insisted that this was a major case and she was responsible for it. She sort of took credit for bringing the case and then went on to say that she wasn't done, that she was going to go on and challenge all kinds of other church-state matters. So on one hand, the times made her--for reasons which I explained earlier--and the other hand, she certainly made the times. It was a perfect combination of being in the right place at the right time and also seizing the initiative.
Some people in the atheist and secular movements today describe Madalyn Murray O'Hair as the worst thing to happen to American atheism. What do you think?
I don't think that's true, however I understand why they would think that. I think most atheists in America, up through Madalyn, cultivated a public persona that was based on being educated, cultured, and refined. Although they weren't believers, they tried to gain an element of trust in the American population that these were people who could be trusted. Madalyn, of course, simply didn't care about that part of it. She was going to have her say. She was blasphemous, she was rude, and she certainly did not represent the kind of person that the atheists had been cultivating over the years.
I don't think that was the worst thing that could have happened to atheism, because I think the other side of the coin is that she made people think about what atheism was all about. She really threw it in their faces and made them come to terms what it meant to be a non-believer. The difficulty for atheists is one of the things associated with being an atheist is the idea that if you an atheist, then you have no moral bearing--you have no roots in any kind of moral or ethical value system and therefore you become an immoral and unethical person. The only way that they could counter that was by living a life that was beyond or above reproach. Madalyn came around and just simply said I'm not going to do that. Not only in her public presentations and her confrontational style, but also through her personal lifestyle. She married her childhood sweetheart and then went off to war and ended up getting pregnant with another man's son, came back home, got a divorce then had another baby out of wedlock. Her behavior was not exactly the kind of behavior favored in the 50s and 60s.