2016-11-18
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.

The organization O'Hair founded, American Atheists, is often regarded as a more reactionary organization compared to other secularist groups. Do you think the organization is her main legacy, or it is the prayer case?
That's a good question. First of all, I'm not so sure that the direct connection between Madalyn and the organization American Atheists will stick, or even sticks now. I think most people just associate Madalyn Murray O'Hair with being an atheist. To the general public, it doesn't matter which particular atheist group you belong to.

I don't think the association hurts or helps American Atheists, but I think it's interesting that when I go out and speak to groups and I mention the Murray case, no one remembers-by the name of it-what the Murray case was. For simplicity's sake, I usually say it's the case that, along with Shemp, removed prayer from school. Even though it took a number of cases for that to happen, that case still stands. When you read constitutional law books, that's still the case that's usually cited.

So when people hear word atheist today, do they immediately think of her?
Oh, I think they do. The point I made is that I don't they associate her necessarily with American Atheists, the organization. But when you mention atheism, I think people think of her.

Do you think that will continue for long, since she's no longer alive?
Yes. I don't know for how much longer. She had another 15 minutes of fame when they discovered her body, but sometimes it takes a little bit of work to get people to remember her when I go out to speak.

Was O'Hair completely anti-religion, or was it more that she so strongly supported the separation of church and state?
I think she was anti-organized religion, and probably anti-religion as well. But the position she took was, you can believe whatever you want to believe, just don't inflict it on me. So her battleground was the separation of church and state.

What do you think Madalyn would have thought of the Pledge of Allegiance case?
She talked about it quite often. She absolutely wanted "under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance. She hammered away at that consistently. Never had any luck.

Your book implies the conversion of her son William to Christianity affected her deeply. How so?
Well I think she truly loved her son, and they were joined in bringing that case. I think she could have lived with it if he had just converted and then gone quietly off to live in the suburbs. But instead, he became her prime challenger and denounced her publicly and regularly and her organization. That, I'm sure, is what hurt her.

Did you interview him for the book?
I exchanged emails with him. He wouldn't meet with me to talk about it.

And he still is opposed to her as he once was?
Oh, yes. Very much so.

How do you think Madalyn Murray O'Hair would react to the amount of religion in the public sphere today, especially in the Bush presidency?
She knew it was coming. Her last years were under the Reagan administration, which was even more so. I don't think she was surprised. I think there were moments when she felt it was a losing battle-that she was never going to succeed with her goals. She knew it would be a long-term quarrel.

What do you think were her hopes for the future before she died? Was there anything that she still had left to do?
One of the issues that was around for her right down to the time of her death, was to eliminate the tax exemption for churches, and she never succeeded. I think that really became, in many respects, her major battle after Murray.

Beyond Madalyn, do you think your run-of-the-mill atheist in America today has a voice? Many think that they don't.
No, I don't think they do. People have people have become reasonably tolerant of atheists. I don't think there's any of that antagonism that existed in the 50s or early 60s. But I think if the atheists were to try to mobilize in any kind of major political way, there would be a lot of resistance to that. So I don't think they have much political clout-certainly not like the conservative Christian movement.

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