Naming Politics: Messiah

The controversy surrounding the naming of a Tennessee child is interesting on two fronts: 1) the right to choose a child’s first name, and 2) the right to give a child the mother’s last name.

The child was originally named Messiah Deshawn Martin. The father initiated a court battle because he wanted the child’s last name changed to match his own: McCullough. The judge rules in favor of changing the boy’s first AND last name, despite the objection of both parents. So the child was (briefly) named Martin Deshawn McCullough.

The judge was fired over this decision because she specifically cited Christian-specific reasons in the courtroom (you can read all about the mess former judge Lu Ann Ballew created for herself here and here).

The press has focused on the first name because Messiah is an unusual choice, but I have found the combination of decisions concerning both first and last names particularly interesting. If you step back and look at the ruling (minus the invocation of Jesus Christ) there is a simple logic – both parents want their last names attached to the child’s legal name and Messiah is very close (in sound and appearance) to Martin, so give the mother the first name and the father the last. If this suggestion was made by friends or family members, in the manner I have just described, it would not seem offensive. In fact, it would have been an excellent opportunity for arbitration or alternative dispute resolution. For example:

Take this out of a courtroom and discuss it in private with a mediator – here are a few naming suggestions to get you started. If you still can’t come up with a mutually agreeable decision, bring it back to the courtroom. From what I understand, this has become something of a standard procedure in family courts in the United States.

However, the judge did not make those suggestions or decisions. Instead she simply ruled to give the child the father’s last name and, while she was at it, changed the first name to something that he could live up to (yes, she actually said the child could not live up to being Jesus Christ) – which is where the politics of last names enters into the discussion.

While it is never mentioned in the news articles that I have read, there is a strong possibility that this judge also believes that children should not be given the mother’s last name – and married women should not keep their last name (and women should not have children outside of marriage). These are all standard opinions of the politically conservative and Christian fundamentalist/evangelical communities within the United States. There are those who consider a hyphenated last name, a double last name (e.g.: Messiah Deshawn Martin McCullough or Messiah Deshawn McCullough Martin) or the use of the mother’s last name to be offensive for political, cultural and religious reasons.

Regardless of her personal opinions, these are not decisions that the judge can make for the parents in question. In fact, it is specifically stated that she can not use her religious beliefs as the basis for decisions made on the bench – therefore, she is now out of a job.

But, the American legal system aside, the question still remains: would either the first or last name prove to be a burden on the child? Personally, I don’t think the community at large (or other children) would think twice about the child’s last name unless the parents entered into a loud and much talked about battle within that community – then the gossips would have a field day. Using the mother’s last name is no longer the hot button issue it once was, and it is possible that a reasonable compromise could have been reached (on that issue) through mediation (e.g.: talking it out with the help of a trained ‘referee’) – as mentioned earlier, I really think this issue should have taken out the courtroom in the first place.

The first name is unusual, but it’s neither brand new nor as uncommon (in the United States) as you might think. According to the Social Security Administration, the name Messiah was number 904 in popularity (1 being most popular and 1000 being the least popular among those common enough to be counted) in 2005 and has steadily increased in popularity, reaching number 387 in 2012. By comparison, Jesus was number 73 in 2005 and 101 in 2012 – leaving the top 100 for the first time since 1999.

Again, that is in the United States. In New Zealand, Messiah is one of the officially blacklisted names and, therefore, not legally allowed as a baby-naming-option.

Here in the USA, Messiah might result in some teasing and bullying on the playground, but I suspect the child’s friends and peers will simply shorten it to Messi (pronounced meh-SIGH), which would make it easier (faster) to say, less formal and less religious. It would be interesting to hear what a child given the name Messiah in 2005 (reaching age 9 in 2014) has to say about his or her experience.

While I find this naming problem fascinating I am of the opinion that it never should have made it into the courtroom, much less the press (yes, that is the third time I’ve said that).

(C) Adora Myers 2014

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