Lent- Day 23: The most hated woman in America.

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Melissa Leo as Madalyn Murray O’Hair in Netflix’s “The Most Hated Woman in America”. (Image: Google)


Over the weekend I watched Netflix’s new biopic “The Most Hated Woman in America” about infamous activist/atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Here’s the trailer:


Newsweek covers Murray O’Hair and the film, giving us some history:


There were pioneers in atheism, and they weren’t all burned at the stake. “The most hated woman in America” was the sobriquet Life magazine bestowed on Madalyn Murray O’Hair, whose suit against the Baltimore Public School System went all the way to the Supreme Court and ended prayer in public schools in 1963. Her success there led to other challenges; she protested when American astronauts read scripture during space launches, and when a nativity scene was mounted on the rotunda of the Texas Capitol. She sued to have “In God We Trust” taken off U.S. currency and to have “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. In the relatively god-fearing America of the ’60s and ’70s, she was like a villain in big-time wrestling. Big, loud and often obscene, O’Hair was a natural on television, starting with the Phil Donahue show (where she debated evangelist Bob Harrington, “The Chaplain of Bourbon Street”) before finding a seat on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show couch.


“She played the media very well,” says Tommy O’Haver, who directed a film about O’Hair, The Most Hated Woman in America (Netflix). “She was one of the original provocateurs, which we see today in multitudes,” he adds, name-checking Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos. “But most of these provocateurs today are playing for the other team. Certainly not her team.”

Even by contemporary standards, O’Hair’s family life was unconventional. She lived with her devout parents as she railed against religion. Both of her sons were born out of wedlock, and she filed her school-prayer suit in the name of the eldest, William Murray Jr., played by Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men’s Pete Campbell), who wittingly or not became the poster child for atheism in America. The film depicts young Bill entering his classroom with his mother as the Lord’s Prayer is being recited; later, we see an older Bill in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, speaking of “a sudden rush of sorrow” that brought him into the program. And then the meeting ends with the assembled reciting…the Lord’s Prayer. (“Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.…”) In 1980, Murray told his mother he had embraced Jesus; a few years later, after battling over his conversion in public, O’Hair disowned her son. “Goddamn zombie 12-steppers got ahold of him,” says O’Hair in the film.

The movie isn’t great. In fact, it’s getting panned by a lot of critics. About the only take-away I have is that Melissa Leo is a great actress, even when she’s stuck wearing funky fat suits and bad wigs. I liked her on “Homicide: Life on the Street”, “Treme” and even the great-start-but-awful-middle-and-finish “Wayward Pines”. Well, no, I do have a couple of other thoughts.

One, that [SPOILER ALERT] Murray O’Hair’s death was awful. I honestly didn’t know she was kidnapped and brutally murdered along with her younger son and granddaughter. That is terrifying and heartbreaking. While I had learned of Murray O’Hair from Social Studies in Christian school, and knew of her older son’s conversion to conservative Christianity from church, I somehow never knew of her end. Murray O’Hair, according to many Christians I knew, was evil; singlehandedly responsible for barring God from public schools, the catalyst for the decay that quickly overtook the educations of millions of innocent American children. She was also the reason why so many private academies were founded (never mentioned were the thousands of racist White parents who bailed from their neighborhood schools when segregation began to be enforced in the 60s and 70s… but I digress).

Two, putting aside how off-putting the woman seemed to be (The Friendly Atheist mentions it in his review here), I agree with her INITIAL court case and The Supreme Court’s ruling. If you’re appalled by that, meh. Let go of your pearls and grab a sniffer of smelling salts. Yes, yes, I know, it was tradition and something, something Judeo-Christian something. Look, I’ll write here what I a few months ago told a Nigerian American Trump supporting-Uber driver who was trying to tell me how wicked our public school system is: Why would you trust your kids to be “trained up in the way of the Lord” by strangers? Teachers are trained in particular subjects like math, history or literature. How does that make them qualified to teach kids about the faith? And which interpretation of faith, since we’re going to pretend that all other non-Christian religions don’t count and shouldn’t be taught… or something. Roman Catholicism is not Southern Baptist is not Anglicanism is not Pentecostalism. How do school boards parse these very real differences in belief? Bottom line: PARENTS are told to “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” 

Besides, I asked him, “Don’t you have faith that God can and will reveal Himself to your daughters just as he has to you? He grew quiet for just a moment before answering in the affirmative and then asking me if I were a Sunday school teacher. Ha.

My question to you, Dear Readers: is your Christianity tied to the culture? Meditate on that, okay? 


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