My religious issue with a child named Messiah

A Tennessee judge has ordered a baby's name be changed from Messiah DeShawn Martin to Martin DeShawn McCullough, saying that the only true Messiah is Jesus Christ. (Reuters)

A Tennessee judge has ordered a baby's name be changed from Messiah DeShawn Martin to Martin DeShawn McCullough, saying that the only true Messiah is Jesus Christ. (Reuters)

Should a judge decide a case based on religious values?

In August, a Tennessee judge forcibly changed a baby's name from Messiah DeShawn Martin to Martin DeShawn McCullough, saying that the only true Messiah is Jesus Christ, a ruling the boy's mother is bent on appealing, Tennessee television station WBIR reported.

"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," Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew said. The boy's mother, 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."

There are a number of issues at play here, not least of all the amazing naming culture among African Americans. Think: Sha'Nay Nay, Laquisha and Latifah – the usual suspects – with recent additions like Harlemisha and Obamaniqua are also making an appearance of late. 

There are also examples of baby names gone wrong locally, if these South African examples are anything to go by. 

Not to mention the names celebrities, particularly in America, are infamous for bestowing upon their unlucky offspring. 

But the issue that caught my attention in the story that did the rounds on Monday was religious: should the judge have objected to the name on religious grounds?

My answer is no. 

The area of Newport, where Martin and her son live, has a large proportion of Christians, according to the judge, who said: "It could put him [the baby] at odds with a lot of people, and at this point he has had no choice in what his name is."

I've written before about my belief that, as a Christian, my job is not to force others to comply with my values if they don't agree with the core beliefs underpinning those values. 

We're told to do many things as Christians in society, mostly involving transforming people, helping the poor and pursuing justice. But it's amazing how often those bits are overlooked in favour of being judgmental. 

As a Christian, I'm not really told to police what people do and say – or how they name their children, even if it isn't a name I think is good. 

In a recent interview with a politician, I stumbled across the fact that he was a dedicated Christian and even served as a minister in his church. I was wondering why he kept it under wraps, so I put the question to him in our interview. 

The politician is Mmusi Maimane, the Democratic Alliance's candidate for Gauteng premier and head of the opposition caucus in the city of Johannesburg. 

At first he was reluctant to talk about it. "I try not to put that at the forefront of my public engagement," he later said. But did his faith play any role in what he did, I asked? 

After a moment he said: "My faith gives me a grounding for humanity. It teaches me that we need to be people who care, people who look after the downtrodden. So my faith inspired my sense of justice. My faith also helps me move away from playing a political game where sometimes it can be about manipulation."

It seemed like a solid answer but I was still wondering why, unlike the Tennessee judge and many other American politicians besides, he was wary of trumpeting his faith.

Then he said: "We must be wary of not wanting to mobilise people on the basis of faith. I don't want to stand up and say all Christians must vote for Maimane, because that's no different to standing up and saying all blacks must vote for so and so. I think it becomes dangerous. I'd rather be in a space where people go, 'that guy has sound policy' or runs the government in a particular way."

It made sense. Separation between the church and state is not just a good idea, it's critical, as I've explained before.

Each sphere can influence and check on the other but they must be kept apart. Our Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng learned that the hard way when he tried to send the judges under him on a leadership course based on Christian principles. Also a part-time minister, his move raised alarm bells (though I do believe it wasn't quite as bad as people made it out to be at the time).

It sent out the wrong message, as does the Tennessee judge trying to force her values on two parents.

Incidentally the two ended up in court because they couldn't agree on whose last name the child should get. Talk about an unlucky kid. 

And that was the real problem as far as I could tell in poor Messiah/Martin's case: that he had parents who couldn't even agree on his surname, let alone know what the word Messiah meant.

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

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