Back when I was living and practicing law in Knoxville, Tennessee, I noticed that several of my brother and sister members of the bar approached the idea of going to court, or going to work, or taking cases, in nearby Cocke* County with apparent trepidation.
Fairly early on in my legal career in Tennessee, I took a trusted colleague aside and asked him, “Dude, what’s up with Cocke County?” By way of reply, he asked me, “What’s the most backward-ass part of California, the part of the state that people from there keep on doing things that y’all’ve† got to tell everyone else, ‘Yeah, I know, but most of us aren’t like that’?‡ That place is Cocke County, and when you take a trip back to California, you’re gonna be apologizing for Cocke County, too, because now you own it just as much as we do, brother!”
And it turns out that indeed, whatever charms and attractions it may have, Cocke County always seems to be where the moonshining is going on with a wink if not a bribe to local law enforcement, where the cockfighting rings get broken up, where there are reports of Klan rallies (never saw one, myself), where local officials do and say things that make the rest of Tennessee facepalm.
Well, Cocke County has done it again.
See, in January of this year, a baby boy was born. Sometime between conception and birth, mom and dad had split up. Reading between the lines, the split-up was acrimonious, as these things sometimes are. So there was disagreement between mom and dad about what last name to give the baby boy. This resulted in the dispute going to court, and since mom and baby boy live in Cocke County, it went to Cocke County Chancery Court, where it was heard by a magistrate.
Who in one sense did kind of a clever thing: the baby now legally bears both mom’s last name and dad’s last name, incorporating the mother’s last name of “Martin” as the baby’s first name. But in so doing, she changed the baby’s first name, and she was quite clear about why she did that.
The baby’s birth certificate reads “Messiah DeShawn Martin.” This was the name given to the boy by his mother. As far as I can tell from the news report, the father didn’t have any objection to his son being named “Messiah.” He just wanted the child to have his last name, which he does until at least September 17, when the decision will be appealed to another judge.
The magistrate was explicit about her reasoning:
I saw out into the future… . 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. … It could put him at odds with a lot of people and at this point he has had no choice in what his name is.
The Social Security Administration reports that “Messiah” has been growing in popularity steadily since the SSA made baby names searchable in 2005 — in 2005 it was the 905th most popular baby boy name; in 2011, the 633rd, and in 2012, the 387th. So it’s not like this woman has come from left field in naming her son this.
She reports that to her, the word “Messiah” means “God,” and her other two sons also have names that begin with “M” and have Christian references — one son in named “Michael,” which I understand is the name of the archangel who will be tasked with serving as the general of the forces of Heaven during the battle of Armageddon, and another is named “Micah,” which I understand is the name of one of the Hebrew prophets.
And of course, people name their children “Jesus” — pronounced as either “Gee-zuz” or “Hey-Zeus” depending on your preference — all the time. And the conventional wisdom is that globally, the first name “Mohammed” (or spelling variations thereof) is the most popular name for boy babies in the world.º
But, when asked about people who name their children Jesus, either with the Spanish or Anglic pronunciations, the magistrate in Cocke County said, “Well, I thought about that as well, and that’s not relevant to this case.” Cocke County is indeed overwhelmingly Christianª but I’m not so sure that would matter — the mother seems to be Christian herself, given her correlation of the phrases “Messiah” and “God,” and she sees nothing wrong with naming her son this.
If the father has no objection to that first name, that pretty much ought to seal it, shouldn’t it? We can all agree that the magistrate overstepped her bounds, right? Or is it that simple? There seemed to be a fairly strong social consensus that a couple in New Jersey who named their boy-baby “Adolph Hitler Campbell” was doing their son a grave misservice, although I concluded then and still think now that parents indeed have a right to name their kids anything they want, even “Adolph Hitler,” although parents choosing a name like that deserve scorn. That said, it’s not for the government to tell people how to raise their kids, at least up to a point, and that zone of deference includes what names to give them. Naming your kid is part of what it is to be a parent.
So if the parents want to name their boy-baby “Messiah,” that’s the kid’s name. Sort out the stuff they can’t agree on, Your Honor. It ought to be a no-brainer that the Magistrate’s decision be reversed and this particular boy-baby gets the name his mother chose for him. But then again, this is Cocke County, Tennessee, so that may not be a foregone conclusion.
* The “e” is silent.
† “Y’all” is an important and necessary contribution to the English language from the American South: the Queen’s English on its own does not provide an easy way to distinguish the singular second person from the plural second person. However, because “y’all” is expressed as a contraction, contracting it with another word — you all have — defies epistolary grace.
‡ The answer varies based on my assessment of the political alignment of the person to whom I am talking. If my interlocutor is someone who I perceive to be liberal, my answer would be “Bakersfield,” and if the person were apparently conservative, “Berkeley.” And really, there’s rarely any shortage of material coming out of either venue.
º My atheist friend who teaches middle school gives all the kids in his classes nicknames. Any kid named “Jesus” is immediately nicknamed “Jeebus.” It doesn’t take long before the kids adopt his nicknames for each other, including and in some cases especially “Jeebus.” While some parents have complained about their kids being called “Jeebus,” he claims that never has a single student manifested any serious offense. And even if they did, his attitude is “Umm… I’ve got tenure.”
ª In Tennessee, when conversant A says “Christian,” conversant B understands that word to mean “Baptist” unless there is an indication by conversant A that a specific other denomination was intended.