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Surprising Science

On the Messiah Baby Mess

Earlier this month, Lu Ann Ballew, a judge in Tennessee, decided that seven-month-old Messiah Deshawn Martin must lose his first name. Her reasoning is inspiring condemnation from across the religious and political spectrum and is being challenged by the ACLU:

“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.”

Judge Ballew’s pronouncement on the meaning of Messiah is one narrow take on a quite controversial matter and reflects willful disregard for First Amendment principles of religious liberty. But the judge’s next point may be even more cringe-worthy:

“It [his name] could put him at odds with a lot of people, and at this point he has had no choice in what his name is.”

Yes! All babies should have the opportunity to appeal their parentally imposed name before a court of law once they have reached seven months of age. And judges should take it upon themselves to decide which names might put citizens “at odds” with others, and rename them accordingly. “Belle” should be reserved for only the most beautiful girls, and boys who seem to follow rules blindly should be prohibited from bearing the name “Maverick.” The popular names “Sophie” and “Sophia,” both derived from the Greek word for “wisdom,” should be stripped from girls with IQs under, say, 120. By the same token, “Lu Ann” should be a moniker only for babies demonstrating feeble reasoning skills and a penchant for banging gavels.

I kid. But come on, this is ridiculous.

This being America, parents have wide license to name their kids pretty much anything they wish. Pop culture, as the Social Security Administration wryly noted a few years ago, bores its way into baby names. It seems “Messiah” is not just the name of one Tennessee infant and a Pennsylvania college. It has been well within the top 1000 boys’ names in the land since the mid-2000s:

Experts also may be surprised by the extent to which American parents are naming their daughters after spiritual and philosophical concepts.  One of the most popular names for girls (rising this year to number 31) is Nevaeh, which is “Heaven” spelled backwards.  The variant Neveah came in this year at number 891 and Heaven is number 263.  Also represented were:  Destiny (No. 41); Trinity (No. 72); Serenity (No. 126); Harmony (No. 315); Miracle (No. 461); Charity (No. 673); Journey (No. 692); Destini (No. 914); and Essence (No. 930).  Cutting against this trend was Armani (No. 971).

American parents were far less likely to name their sons in this way, although the 2007 boys’ list does include Sincere (No. 622) and Messiah (No. 723).

Other countries have much stricter naming laws. In Germany, you may not give your baby a gender-neutral name: “Matti,” a court ruled, was too ambiguous. Danish parents have a menu of only 7,000 pre-approved names from which to choose. Parents in Iceland must also select a name from an official list and give their sons names from the boys’ list and their daughters names from the girls’ list. But as restrictive as some of these laws are, none give judges the power to scrap a baby’s name for being too close to that of a deity or other religious figure.     

Heaven help us.


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