“Messiah” prohibited by Tennessee judge as name for baby

ABC News, August 12, 2013:

Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew ordered the name change last week, according to WBIR-TV (http://on.wbir.com/1cDOeTY). The boy’s parents were in court because they could not agree on the child’s last name, but when the judge heard the boy’s first name, she ordered it changed, too.

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Ballew said the name Messiah could cause problems if the child grows up in Cocke County, which has a large Christian population.

“The word Messiah is a title and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ,” the judge said.

Several points.

No court in the United States has any business making a proclamation about who “The Messiah” allegedly is or is not. Most Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth was “the Messiah” as Christians understand that term; Christos/Χριστός in Greek and moshiach in Hebrew both mean “anointed” or smeared with oil, a common symbolic practice in the Levant and the Mediterranean world for designating a monarch. There have been many nominees or claimants to the title of the anointed person identified in the Jewish scriptures over the centuries; mainstream rabbinic Judaism holds that none of those nominees or claimants has fit the job description or surrounding circumstances identified by the Jewish prophets.

Christos is a reasonably common given names or surname in Greek; certainly many derivations of that name form the roots of given names and surnames among cultures that have had contact with Christianity. Meshach from moshiach is not a common name but it is the given name of television actor Meshach Taylor and Maryland’s famed woodsman and hunting figure Meshach Browning.  Jesus/Jesús is a very common name in much of the Spanish-speaking world.  All of these names might, by logic, be struck down on the grounds that there is only one Messiah, named Jesus Christ.

In fairness to the judge, she had to make a decision in a contested case to keep or alter the child’s given name.  It is not clear that the record contained evidence of a specific risk of “problems” from this name if the child had the misfortune to grow up around “Christians” in Cooke County, Tennessee.  I believe that Christianity, in its many forms, is in fact the majority religion in every county in the United States.  Rockland County, New York has a very large Jewish population but Christians make up the slight majority there; the highly secular urbanized Pacific Northwest is still mostly Christian.  What makes Cooke County different from Kings County (Brooklyn), New York or Salt Lake County, Utah, isn’t clear.  Even if the name might subject a child to some criticism or even ridicule, does it follow that the first name “Bruce” is to be stricken on the grounds that some third grader might cause “problems” by singing “Bruce the Moose” off-key in the lunch line eight years later And does the prospect of growing up in that county constitute a sufficiently reasonable basis for a lifetime decision striking a name, when many a family succeeds in escaping rural Tennessee, children in tow?

By this logic, a Jewish (or, logically, non-Jewish) judge in Rockland County, New York could strike the name “Christian” (Christina, Christopher, Kris, Chris, etc.) from a newborn’s birth certificate on the grounds that, from a traditional Jewish perspective, the most forms of Christianity blaspheme the name of G-d by claiming divinity for a human being, and that the name would be highly offensive theologically for many residents of Rockland County, which has a very substantial Orthodox Jewish community.  Dearborn, Michigan has a very substantial Muslim population; could names of children fall stricken by a local magistrate’s pen there on the grounds that the names perhaps offended Islam and/or some Muslims (e.g. Constantine, Charles for Charles Martel, Trinity for a girl as offending Islamic teaching of tawheed or absolute divine unity, George both for St. George and for the controversial eponymous U.S. president, etc.)  These scenarios seem unlikely for many reasons, but are logically justified if Messiah is a legally prohibited name for a child.

More troubling is the very declaration by a court of a decree on a theological controversy itself.  Once courts assert the jurisdiction to enumerate and identify the number and names of messiahs, they will begin to opine on transubstantiation, apostolic succession, and the divine or non-divine origins of the Talmud as well.  When this happens, it will annoy secular-minded people like me but damage the civic life of devoutly religious American citizens more concretely; religious people have more “skin in the game” regarding religious freedom than secular-minded people do not because being non-religious is inferior to religiosity, but because it simply matters more to the religious.

Query: can you formulate a rule that keeps the judge from striking the name “Messiah” but would deal acceptably with Nazis naming their child for a Nazi historical figure, as occurred in New Jersey in a recent case?

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