A Messiah was born … in Tennessee

Let’s face it: Some parents give their babies weird names.

Years ago, as a features writer for The Oklahoman, my wife, Tamie, wrote about a teenager named Cocaine — er, Kokain:

Kokain Mothershed thinks his father must have been on drugs when he named him.

Check his birth certificate, and you’ll find only that first and last name. Ouch. It’s real, all right.

But why in the world would anyone name their child after an illegal substance?

“Well, that’s a real good question,” the 17-year-old from Oklahoma City said. “I’m just glad (my dad’s) in recovery now.”

The Douglass High School junior quarterback is as quick on his feet as he is in the pocket. He’s already looking at colleges and wants to study computer science.

And he hasn’t let the drug connection ruin his life, he said, even though he can’t escape the image.

“I’ve got a cousin. Her name is Marijuana,” Kokain said. “But I don’t see her much. She’s locked up now.”

Strange, huh?

But this is the United States, land of the free, so parents have the right to name their offspring whatever they want — no matter how Strange.

Or maybe not.

An Associated Press story out of Tennessee reported earlier this week:

NEWPORT, Tenn. (AP) — A judge in Tennessee changed a 7-month-old boy’s name to Martin from Messiah, saying the religious name was earned by one person and “that one person is Jesus Christ.”

Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew ordered the name change last week, according to WBIR-TV (http://on.wbir.com/1cDOeTY).The boy’s parents were in court because they could not agree on the child’s last name, but when the judge heard the boy’s first name, she ordered it changed, too.

“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,” Ballew said.

Um, only in America. Or something like that.

The first AP story, referenced above, hit the quick high points, but I wondered if the wire service would give the case more serious attention than a gee-whiz bright. I was pleased to see a slightly more in-depth report last night.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee judge’s decision to change a baby’s first name from Messiah to Martin is drawing strong reactions from people who believe the judge overstepped her powers and those who think parents’ creativity should have some limits.

Thousands of people have commented online about the judge’s order since WBIR-TV published its story over the weekend. Many of them said Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew went too far, but not all.

“I agree 100 percent that we only have one messiah and that’s Jesus Christ,” said Edith Wood, a resident of Cocke County in eastern Tennessee, where the boy lives. The mostly rural county is located in the Appalachian foothills and encompasses part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Wood said a cousin called from Atlanta and asked her to find the judge and take her out to dinner. Telephone calls to Ballew from The Associated Press rang unanswered Monday, and her voicemail was full.

If you read GetReligion often, you know that we advocate telling all sides of a story. So I guess I can’t wish that the AP had made an exception in this case. Seriously, I am glad that the reporter quoted a local resident, even if that resident — to me at least — comes across as a bit of a hick. I wonder if more context on the resident’s religious background and specific stance on the legalities involved might have helped. Maybe not.

The AP goes on to quote an American Civil Liberties Union official and a baby names expert, but doesn’t include any theological sources — such as a Bible professor or a pastor — who might weigh in on the judge’s objections to the name.

Over at The Tennessean, Godbeat pro Bob Smietana notes that the child in the headlines is just one of hundreds of Messiahs:

Little baby Messiah of East Tennessee is not alone — and advocates say a judge should not have barred a couple from using that name.

Last year, 762 boys got the same name, making it the 387th-most-popular boys’ name in the country for 2012. Messiah was more popular than Jay and slightly less popular than Scott.

That’s not likely to please child support magistrate Lu Ann Bellew of Cocke County Chancery Court.

Smietana quotes a family law attorney who suggests that a judge can consider a child’s best interest if a name is likely to cause embarrassment or bullying.

But The Tennessean story also includes a skeptical Baptist:

J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said the judge’s comments about religion made the ruling suspect. He, too, pointed out that many parents choose to name their children after religious figures.

“You start down that road — what you do about Jesús?” Walker said. “Or Muhammad — or Theo, which is another name for God? Once you start down that road, you are in troubled waters.”

Just another boring day on the Godbeat, right?

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.
  • Kevin Spencer

    Balanced stories, it seems. Balanced families or judges, nor so sure.

    The children of the late singer Frank Zappa would have been an excellent interview to contrast. Their names are Dweezil and Moon Unit.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Those are some, um, interesting names! :-)

  • Julia B

    Reporters should interview some med students. I remember back in the 60s when some med students I knew were giving moms at the City Hospital in St Louis advice about baby names – suggesting medical terms and other words that kind of sound nice/impressive if you don’t know what they mean. Some moms actually used those words. The guys justified it by saying it was an old tradition and nobody was actually harmed. I don’t know about that. Examples: syphillus, humungous, sasparilla, aspergillus, kleptomania, mycelia,

  • Guest

    Um Mohammed, in various spellings, is the most common name in the world.

  • Guest

    And what about all those Hispanic “Jesus”?

  • Suburbanbanshee

    Messiah means “anointed one.” Christos is the Greek translation. And as many of the Fathers of the Church pointed out, there were plenty of anointed kings and priests around before _the_ Messiah, and plenty of anointed Christians afterward. Every Christian shares His Name in that respect. We are in His Image, and we can bear His Name.

    Hence there’s nothing scandalous about all the Jesuses and Christos and Trinidads and… Messiahs.