Sweet baby Jesus

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This story is a few weeks old now, so you might have heard it already. But in case not, a Tennessee judge has ordered the parents of a seven-month-old baby to change their child’s name from Messiah to Martin because

“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 said.

Jaleesa Martin responded saying, “I was shocked. I never intended on naming my son Messiah because it means God and I didn’t think a judge could make me change my baby’s name because of her religious beliefs.”

She has since said she will appeal against the ruling adding that Messiah is unique and she liked how it sounded alongside the boy’s two siblings – Micah and Mason.

“Everybody believes what they want so I think I should be able to name my child what I want to name him, not someone else,” Ms Martin said.

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

The ACLU came out in defense of Martin, pointing out that the Judge did not have the right to impose her religious beliefs on others. Judging from the fact that Messiah seems to be an increasingly popular name for boys born in the USA, many parents don’t seem to share that concern – but parents can get away with it, of course, as Richard Dawkins has often pointed out in referring to enforced religion as a form of child abuse.

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There seem to be at least two distinct issues here. First, the Judge should certainly not get to enforce her religious beliefs on a parent, or a child. And it’s fairly clear that this is what she’s doing, in referring to a “title” that has only been “earned by one person”. She thinks of Messiah as an honorific, and one that cannot be earned by a regular human – which means that she believes in the divinity of Jesus, and that this is what informed her judgement.

The second issue is far more tricky, though, in that it’s undoubtedly true that calling a child “Messiah could cause problems if the child grows up in Cocke County, which has a large Christian population”. This more legitimate reason is unfortunately obscured by the first, illegitimate reason.

The reason that this issue is more tricky is because it highlights the dilemma of just how much control parents should have over their infant’s lives, and how much of it should be delegated to the state. Your name impacts your chances of success in life, if we’re to believe the folks at Freakonomics, and it certainly impacts how much or how little you’re going to be teased. I’d bet that Messiah would be teased a fair amount – and the question is, do (or rather, should) parents have the right to subject a child to that teasing?

In case you don’t know of it, the title of this post is a reference to a funny prayer around the dinner table, in Talladega Nights, embedded below. For more exploration of the ethical issues here, Mark Oppenheimer’s New York Times column is worth reading.