Madalyn Murray O'Hair: mother of shock schlock

The Argument

The atheist who ripped the Bible out of U.S. classrooms was a cynical opportunist

Books

November 09, 2003|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff

In popular American lore, the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair is the frumpy Baltimore housewife who pried loose the Bible from the loving grasp of the nation's classrooms. Her crowbar was a lawsuit that led to a landmark 1963 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, outlawing prayer in public schools.

In reality, O'Hair should be raised on a pedestal as a hero of the American Conservative movement, not only for her matchless recruiting for the nascent Christian Right, but also as a precursor for everything that has gone wrong with the tone and tenor of today's political discourse.

The shrill style of her divide-and-conquer invective, well ahead of its time, now prevails in every forum from talk radio to the best-seller list, where Right vs. Left has become a ceaseless shouting match. With her abrasiveness and money-grubbing, me-first mentality, O'Hair set back the cause of secularism far more than she advanced it, if only by goading the opposition to ever more spectacular feats of fund raising and organization.

All this becomes clear in a close reading of Ungodly: The Passions, Torments, and Murder of Atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, by Ted Dracos (Free Press, 304 pages, $25), a fascinating examination of her turbulent life and times. Although Dracos devotes nearly half the book to O'Hair's bizarre disappearance and brutal murder in 1995, for my money the more intriguing portions concern her rise to infamy.

It's not that the crime story isn't gripping -- the investigation saga alone is worthy of a made-for-TV movie -- it's just that the rest of her life says so much more about the times we live in, if only by demonstrating how a single determined, noisy person can captivate the public's attention and take over an entire movement, as long as she can lure enough cameras and microphones to her doorstep.

Consider, for example, Dracos' account of O'Hair's first bigtime television appearance, more than four years after her Supreme Court triumph. It came in late 1967, when she was the featured guest on the debut of a new talk show whose host, the then-unknown Phil Donahue, hadn't even yet settled on a regular format.

O'Hair was to settle the matter for him early in the live broadcast, when she literally ripped a page from a Bible before the shocked studio audience of housewives.

"Everybody -- floor crew, staff, the audience -- went into mass fibrillation, struck dumb and still by the horror of this live-and-in-color desecration," Dracos writes. "However, when the commercial break came, the women had recovered their wits and then some. Donahue stepped down amongst the palpitating females all perched on the edges of their folding chairs. They plastered him with questions to throw at his guest. Good questions. Tough questions. Better questions than his. Madalyn started answering them with the cameras still off, sprinkling her glib, erudite responses with profanities including even the unbelievable -- the F-word.

"It was wild. It was heaven. Donahue was in semicontrolled ecstasy. He told his director-producer to have the floor crew get him a hand microphone. He wanted to wade into the mass of agitated women when they came out of the commercial break and went back live."

Thus was O'Hair born as a TV personality, and thus was Donahue shaped into a new kind of star. And by extension, of course, thus were Oprah and Jerry Springer and Crossfire and Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter and Al Franken all ticketed for stardom.

By that time, O'Hair had already staked out her willingness to outrage, even if it literally endangered her life and damaged her cause. Long before her lawsuit reached the Supreme Court, she accepted an invitation to write a column for a cranky leftist magazine called The Realist. Its iconoclastic publisher had urged her to spout off, and she obliged beyond his wildest dreams, as Dracos recounts.

"Some people have interpreted my position to mean that I am against religious ceremonies in schools," she wrote. "This is not true. I am against religion. I am against schools. I am against apple pies. I am against 'Americanism.' I am against mothers. I am against adulterated foods. I am against nuclear fission testing. I am against commercial television. I am against all newspapers. I am against 99-and-44 / 100 of the magazines. I am against Eisenhower, Nixon, Kennedy, Lodge. I'm even against giving the country back to the Indians. Why should the poor fools be stuck with this mess?"

And so it was that, when she ultimately won her case, some religious leaders already had plenty of ammunition set aside to support their declaration that the decision was a defeat not only for them, but for the American Way.

"The communists will enjoy this day," Dracos quotes then-cardinal of Los Angeles, James F. McIntyre, who said the ruling "can only mean that our American heritage and freedom are being abandoned in imitation of Soviet materialism and regimented liberty."

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