The process of the removal of prayer from America’s public schools was begun by my mother, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, in 1960. On June 17, 2014, I returned to the place where the circumstances of the lawsuit she brought against the Baltimore City Schools began – the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
For decades the family in which I grew up has been viewed by atheists, liberals, even by conservative Christians, as intellectual in nature – a family of skeptics who valued the concept of “separation of church and state.” While each of those groups had differing definitions of the establishment clause of the Constitution, all were under great misconceptions about my family and its background.
My mother was not intellectually an atheist; she was a Marxist, and that Marxism did not come about from rigorous study, but rather from unemployment. Our family was in fact classically dysfunctional and poor, and most of my mother’s musings about her father’s vast business experience was a myth created by her. Unable to hold down a job for more than a few months at a time because of personality issues, my mother found Marxism where most Americans of that era found it – in the unemployment lines.
As her Marxist views grew stronger in the 1950s, she became involved in various anti-war rallies that were in fact driven by KGB funding. The rallies and marches were more about anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism than about issues of war. As Fidel Castro emerged in Cuba, she soon became a devoted champion of the communist leader. Within months of Castro taking power in 1959, my mother was actively seeking to move our family to Cuba, and she later led the Maryland branch of the Fair Play for Cuba committee.
Our move to Cuba was not to be, and in early 1960 my first trip to the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., occurred. Seeking Soviet citizenship, my mother had put together a volume of materials to present to the Embassy officials, including materials on an antiaircraft missile she had obtained while working for Martin-Marietta for a short time, one of her many ill-fated careers. The Soviets in Washington were not impressed and neither probably were the FBI agents in the secret tunnel underneath the Soviet Embassy. Almost immediately she came up with the idea that presenting herself to a Russian embassy in Europe would prove her devotion to Marxism and her desire to live in Russia. It was the trip to the Soviet Embassy in Paris, France, that led directly to the lawsuit to remove prayer from America’s public schools.
I describe the ill-fated journey to France on the Queen Elizabeth oceanliner in my first book, “My Life without God.” The response of the staff at the Soviet Embassy in Paris was the same as it had been in Washington – “Stay in America and work for the revolution.” Upon our return to America, my mother had to accompany me to school and explain my three-week absence, and in so doing she accidentally discovered the Pledge of Allegiance and prayers that began each day in my school. She immediately saw just how she could “work for the revolution.” The continuing process to remove God from the schools is described in “My Life without God.”
The Soviet Embassy at the time of my mother’s attempted defection to the Soviet Union was located at 1125 16th Street NW in Washington. The house was first purchased from a wealthy family by the government of Tsar Nicholas. Nicholas’ official title, by the way, is now Saint Nicholas, having been declared a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000, along with his wife and five children martyred by the Bolsheviks.
The new communist government kept the old Victorian house and made it their Soviet Embassy. It had a huge tunnel beneath it constructed by the CIA and monitored by the FBI and CIA jointly. I have seen the redacted version of a file that still exists, with the exact dates and times of my mother’s visits to the Soviet Embassy, including the times she dragged me along as well. This includes a visit after the filing of the case in a lower court to remove prayer from the public schools in Baltimore.
In 1961, under my mother’s direction, I pasted together a scrap book of the exploits of one Yuri Gagarin, the first man to orbit the Earth. My mother felt that this, along with her filing of the anti-prayer lawsuit, would help her so far ineffective campaign to defect to the Soviet Union. So, back we went to Washington, D.C., for another try.
An information officer thanked me for the stupid-looking scrapbook and we went back to Baltimore. At this point my mother was just beginning to profit handily from being a classic American dissenter, but had not acquired enough wealth yet to abandon her utopian dream of Marxist Russia. Later she joined the class of other wealthy American dissenters such as Al Sharpton. There are bucks to be made from bashing America; just ask Arianna Huffington.
On June 17 of this year, the anniversary of that disastrous Supreme Court decision banning school prayer, I was part of a conference titled Advancing a Constructive Agenda for U.S.–Russia Relations. The title of the conference reveals that it was organized by academics, chief among them being Dr. Edward Lozansky, president of the American University in Moscow. The events over two days were held at several venues in Washington including room 902 of the Hart Senate Office Building ,which is a meeting/banquet hall of the top floor of the building with a view of the Capitol Dome.
The portion of the conference in the Hart Senate Office Building was opened by Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. The evening portion of the event was held at the new Russian Embassy at 2650 Wisconsin Avenue, NW near the Naval Observatory. Because of my experiences at the former embassy on 16th Street, which is now the official residence of the ambassador, I did look forward to meeting Ambassador Kislyak.
The last time I was in an American embassy overseas I was leading a fact-finding mission that included a former governor. Our cameras and cell phones were confiscated at the gate, and we were searched. Although the security at the entrance to the Russian Embassy is forbidding, no one had their cameras or cell phones confiscated on the way in. The complex includes several buildings, including living quarters of which only two or three are visible from Wisconsin Ave. The Ceremony Building, inaugurated by Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin in 1994, is where the reception I attended was held.
Under communist rule, Russians, particularly the men, developed a generational dependence on alcohol. Without hope of a better life, it was about the only joy a working man had – sort of like living in Detroit today. Sadly, the problem has not been whisked away by the economic success of Russia in the post-communist era. As I entered the anteroom of the area designated for the reception, I was greeted by a table full of shot glasses filled with vodka. The bartender seemed perplexed when I requested a glass of tonic water on ice.
One purpose in attending the reception that evening was a conversation with Ambassador Kislyak who served in the diplomatic corps of the Soviet Union as well as that of the Russian Federation. I found the ambassador early on and engaged him in conversation about my first experience in a Russian (Soviet) Embassy. We both had to laugh when I got to the part of the story about arriving at the Soviet Embassy in Paris and my mother’s great surprise at finding no Soviet diplomats there who spoke English. We shared a few stories from that era, which were interesting but which, out of respect for his office, I will not repeat – unless of course I am waterboarded by the CIA, in which case I will talk before I even get close to the water.
During the evening, I had interesting conversations with several attendees including a Russia expert from the Carnegie think tank in New York. Several hundred people attended the conference overall, including officials from the states of Minnesota and Alaska. (Yes, you can see Russia from Alaska.) Minnesota just held a Russian American trade and innovation conference in March of this year. The CEOs of many American companies have told President Obama what he can do with trade sanctions against Russia, and I can assure readers that there are no bright lights at that location.
A shut down of trade with Russia would cost many thousands of jobs in the United States as well as the loss of billions of dollars in American private investment in Russia. The planned NATO expansion into Ukraine after the overthrow of the elected government there in April was foolhardy at best, led to loss of life and did nothing to encourage continued integration of Russia into the West. Twenty years ago Vladimir Putin wanted to reform Russia and bring the nation into NATO. After 20 years of being treated as an enemy by the United States and NATO, he has become an enemy. Most of the experts at the conference from the left and the right acknowledge that the antagonism of Russia today is a direct result of NATO expansion to Russia’s borders, for what purpose, other than assuring jobs in the defense industry, is unknown.
During the late 1980s, not long after I became a Christian, I visited what was still the Soviet Union to take a look at the place where my mother had planned for me to grow into adulthood. I soon became half owner of the first private tour agency in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev’s “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (restructuring). That tour company escorted many thousands of American Christians through Russia and Ukraine on evangelistic missions. Our company printed Bibles in Minsk, Belorussia, to be distributed at evangelistic meetings, some in stadiums, in which thousands at a time accepted Jesus as Lord.
In August of 1991, I was literally stuck at the Moscow Airport during the attempted coup by the hardline apparatchiks, which failed and further weakened the Soviet Union, which collapsed in December of that same year. I was also present in 1993 when then President Yeltsin illegally dissolved the Parliament over a power dispute. The Parliament stayed in session and with the agreement of the Russian Supreme Court impeached President Yeltsin. A few days later the military intervened on behalf of the president, and the Parliament was dissolved. The overall dispute was over Yeltsin’s privatization plans the Parliament did not want to implement.
My exposure to business in Russia, including dealing with the murderous mobsters who ran wild under President Yeltsin’s rule, made my visit to the Russian Embassy and discussion with Ambassador Kislyak and others even more interesting. It has been two decades since the sale of by business interests in Russia, and I speak virtually no Russian now – although admittedly the best I was ever able to do was to order meals and give directions to taxi drivers. The primary language at all of the events, however, was English for both Russian and American participants.
The entire experience of the conference events took me back to the times of being raised in a Marxist home where the vodka did flow and America, free enterprise and God were despised. Having been a part of the decline in religion and morality that has come to America, I now look at Russia where individual achievement is honored and prayer and Bible instruction are welcomed in the classrooms. Recently, the “gay” rainbow flag was hoisted at the American Embassy in Israel. At the Olympic Games at Sochi this year, it was Russia who was vilified by Western media for not being gay-friendly. A real turnaround from the 1960s for America. Meanwhile Russia has a flat tax that encourages growth, while businesses in the U.S. struggle under a tax code that has many of our wealthy denouncing their citizenship and simply living on their yachts.
Some things do not change, however. NATO is still knocking on the front door of Russia as if it were still the Soviet Union, with Leonid Brezhnev and the old Politburo in power there. Despite pleas from Germany and France, the United States continues to alienate a resource-rich nation that just a few years ago wanted to be our ally, while refusing to recognize that our real enemies lie in the Middle East. The source of most of the evil in the world is financed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to whose despotic king our democratically elected president has publicly bowed. Meanwhile Russia, whose security agencies warned us about a coming jihad against us, is deemed our enemy. And worse than that, we supply arms to the jihadists in Syria who behead Christians, rape Christian women and enslave children. Incredibly, it is Vladimir Putin who stands nearly alone as a world leader in defending the Christians of the Middle East.
When my mother filed the lawsuit to remove prayer and Bible reading from America’s schools in 1960, the churches were full and the nation was at near full employment. Homosexual relations were considered unnatural by 90 percent of the people, and the new nation of Israel was praised as a shining light to the world, a final equality for the Jewish people. Today Israel is despised in the liberal churches that champion homosexuality, and one of every two people checking out at the supermarkets are using food stamps. Our president calls for Soviet-style equal outcome rather than equal opportunity. One thing that has changed: Westerners are seeking Russian citizenship, but not to support Marxism. This time Westerners are fleeing the godless collectivism sought by my mother, the system that is fast becoming the new American norm.
My first book on the real circumstances leading up to the removal of prayer from the schools, “My Life Without God,” is still in print after 30 years. I pray that those born since prayer was removed from our schools will read it and discover the truth of the events.