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“Religious Zealotry”: In God’s Name Or Baby Messiah, Competing Claims Of Religious Freedom

Last week, when a Tennessee judge forcibly changed an infant’s name from Messiah to Martin, it was hard to decide which was more noteworthy, the parents’ grandiosity in naming their child for the one they consider their Savior or the judge’s religious zealotry in prohibiting the name.

“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,” said Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew.

The American Civil Liberties Union has offered to appeal the ruling for the child’s mother, Jaleesa Martin, of Newport, Tenn., who did not return a phone call. The ruling came in a hearing after Ms. Martin and the baby’s father could not agree on a last name for the boy, but the judge took issue with his first name.

The case of little Messiah — or Martin, for now — raises two interesting questions, one legal and the other religious. Both are trickier than they seem.

States put all sorts of restrictions on parental naming rights, from the length of first names to what punctuation marks are permissible. But the restrictions cannot, for the most part, be justified by an appeal to religion. It therefore seems likely that Magistrate Ballew’s ruling against “Messiah” will be overturned as a violation of the First Amendment.

On the other hand, last year a New York judge refused to allow a couple to change their family name to ChristIsKing. The judge argued that allowing certain names could infringe on the religious liberties of others, and he offered the example of a court employee forced to call out a name with a religious message.

“A calendar call in the courthouse would require the clerk to shout out, ‘JesusIsLord ChristIsKing’ or ‘Rejoice ChristIsKing,’ ” wrote Judge Philip S. Straniere, of Richmond County. He was alluding to the daughter’s first name, Rejoice, and a name they had sought for their son, although no court would allow them to change it to “JesusIsLord.”

Judge Straniere’s decision is not binding in Tennessee, but it reminds us that whenever religious language is involved, whether etched into public buildings or slapped onto a Social Security card, there are competing claims of religious freedom.

The Tennessee magistrate might have argued that “Messiah” would infringe on the religious liberty of those who did not want to call this boy the messiah — or did not believe there was even such thing as a messiah. She could have been the defender of atheists’ rights! That argument might have stood a better chance on appeal.

Last year, there were 762 American baby boys given the name Messiah, putting it right between old standbys Scott and Jay for popularity, according to the Social Security Administration database. As currently formulated, the magistrate’s reasoning would be a problem not only for all of them, but also for all the Americans, primarily of Hispanic ancestry, who have named their sons Jesus. There were 3,758 Americans given the name Jesus last year, putting it way ahead of Messiah.

Now, one could argue that Jesus does not necessarily refer to Jesus Christ, the one believed to be the Messiah (“Christ” is one Greek-derived translation for “messiah”). But surely that’s whom most parents have in mind. Jesús finds particular favor among Roman Catholics in Mexico and Central America, where so many recent immigrants come from. It is less popular in Spain.

“My impression,” said Ilan Stavans, who teaches Spanish literature at Amherst College, “is that there is an identification in Latin America with characters of the Passion that you don’t find in other parts of the world, including Spain.”

Yet as Mr. Stavans points out, the tradition of religious naming in Latin America goes beyond those involved in the events, known as the Passion, leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. Many Latinos are happy to name their children versions of the word “God.”

“Adonai is also a common name among Latinos, especially Mexicans,” Mr. Stavans said. “And so is Elohim.” Those are both Hebrew versions of the word for the deity. “But neither of them,” he added, “matches the ubiquity of Jesus, closely followed by Maria, Jose and Guadalupe.”

Hebrew-derived names are particularly popular among Latinos who have become Pentecostal Protestants, according to Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, a historian at Azusa Pacific University, in Azusa, Calif. As Pentecostalism has spread in Latin America, new adherents have a “desire to connect to Old Testament prophets, Jewish dietary laws and sometimes Sabbath keeping,” Ms. Sánchez-Walsh said. It “gives Latino Pentecostals a stake in their religious heritage as non-Catholics — which is what a lot of this is about.”

For some, that stake in non-Catholic Christianity is achieved by picking the names of patriarchs or prophetic figures, like Jacob or Eliezer, both names given to Hispanic Pentecostal boys I know. Adonai or Elohim ups the Old Testament ante.

Jews don’t name children versions of God, generally sticking to human beings in the Hebrew Bible. It is forbidden for Muslims to name a child Allah or God. For reasons that are unclear, much of the English-speaking world has tended to avoid Jesus as a name.

And all of these rules, quasi rules and traditions are subject to change, notes Stephen Butler Murray, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Boston and a lecturer at Harvard Divinity School.

“Mary was considered simply too holy for secular use until the 12th century,” Mr. Murray said. Yet today Mary, along with cognates like Maria and Marie, are popular throughout the Christian world.

Finally, Mr. Murray added that we use God-names for institutions all the time, without anyone being accused of blasphemy. “Messiah College in Pennsylvania seems to go on without being struck by the lightning of divine wrath too often,” he said.

 

By: Mark E. Oppenheimer, The New York Times, August 16, 2013

August 19, 2013 Posted by | Religion | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Politicized Identities”: Surrendering To Tribal Instincts And A Politics Of Pure Power

In a meditation on reactions to the Boston bombings and the apparent identification of the perpetrators, TAP’s Paul Waldman says something profound:

Let’s be honest and admit that everyone had a hope about who the Boston bomber would out to be. Conservatives hoped it would be some swarthy Middle Easterner, which would validate their belief that the existential threat from Islam is ongoing and that their preferred policies are the best way to deal with that threat. Liberals hoped it would be a Timothy McVeigh-like character, some radical right-winger or white supremacist, which would perhaps make us all think more broadly about terrorism and what the threats really are. The truth turned out to be … well, we don’t really know yet. Assuming these two brothers are indeed the bombers, they’re literally Caucasian, but they’re also Muslim. Most importantly, as of yet we know absolutely nothing about what motivated them. Nothing. Keep that in mind.

But for many people, their motivations are of no concern; all that matters is their identity.

He goes on to talk about the tendency of U.S. conservatives to reduce large proportions of the human race–including many Americans–to an identity-imputed barbarism that makes them perfect enemies and thus not worth understanding. But it’s sometimes a problem for liberals as well–certainly those who assume that being a white Christian male from the South is an identity that connotes an incorrigible cultural and political enemy (you can see why that might bother me).

But there are two other reasons liberals ought to be especially careful about identity politics–it abolishes the restraining power, real if sometimes attenuated, of universalistic liberal values on those who would otherwise run amok with greed and other forms of tribal and individual self-interest, and it sets up a power contest between identity groups in which those who already have power–typically wealthy white men–are probably going to win. Even if you buy a “fundamentals” analysis of politics as mainly about who we are and what we are statistically likely to believe or vote for, there is a zone, sometimes small but critical, of shared values and rational persuasion that matters on the margins all of the time and in the center of political discourse at least some of the time. That narrow zone is sometimes what separates democratic politics from the ethos of the Thirty Years War.

Look, we all make judgments about groups of people who are antagonistic to our point of view. I routinely say highly disparaging things about the conservative movement and the Republican Party, as they exist today. But I do try to pay attention to what they actually say and their justifications for saying it, which is why, to the anger of some of my political allies, I tend to take conservatives at their word that they believe zygotes are human beings or that the weight of history militates in changes in family structure or that capitalism is the only successful model for wealth creation. I could just dismiss them all as depraved crypto-fascists or as puppets for various puppet-masters, but if that’s the case, what’s the point of writing or contending over politics?

There are real and obvious meta-forces in political life that transcend reason or empirical data or any effort at persuasion, and they are often associated with “politicized identities.”But if we don’t constantly try to understand the motivations beneath these identities and pry them loose into that free air where sweet reason and cooperation can take hold, then we surrender to tribal instincts and a politics of pure power in which not one of us truly ever matter.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, April 19, 2013

April 21, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Speaking In Code”: Race And Ethnicity Never Far From Presidential Campaign

The racially offensive remark by an unnamed adviser to Republican Mitt Romney– if the painfully thin Daily Telegraph story is to be believed — is likely to be described as the injection of race, ethnicity and nationality in what has been a colorblind campaign.

While the comment may be the most blatant reference to President Obama’s background in the 2012 race, it is hardly the first. Or the last.

“We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special,” the adviser reportedly said of Romney, who arrived in London Wednesday. “The White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have.”

Romney was born and raised in Michigan. Obama’s story is far more complicated. His mother was white and born in Kansas. His father came from Kenya. Obama was born in Hawaii and spent part of his childhood in Indonesia. He is Christian, but crazy rumors persist that he is Muslim with ties to terrorists. All of this allows the president to be easily characterized as different, exotic, less American and more foreign. As “other.” And Romney and his supporters have not shied from those types of descriptions.

In one recent example, former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu told reporters in a call arranged by the Romney campaign that “I wish this president would learn how to be an American.” Sununu later walked back his remarks, saying “The president has to learn the American formula for creating business.”

Romney himself said of Obama’s approach to the economy in a speech last week in Pittsburgh: “His course is extraordinarily foreign.” He has repeatedly said Obama “doesn’t understand America.”

Romney and his team are certainly entitled to make robust criticisms of the president and his policies. There is a legitimate debate in this campaign over the role of the federal government and what kind of country we want to live in. Constant references to “America,” a word laced with images of patriotism and amber waves of grain, are nothing new to the campaign trail, where candidates are trying desperately to connect with voters.

But in this campaign, these criticisms are not made in a vacuum free of the politics of race and identity. Hillary Clinton ran into this tripwire during the 2008 Democratic primary when she said Obama’s support was waning among “hard-working Americans, white Americans.”

It would be far more enlightening for Obama’s critics to say exactly what they mean instead of speaking in code.

 

By: Beth Reinhard, National Journal, July 25, 2012

July 26, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“In The Bull’s Eye”: Trayvon Martin And Dangerous Times For Black Men

For every black man in America, from the millionaire in the corner office to the mechanic in the local garage, the Trayvon Martin tragedyis personal. It could have been me or one of my sons. It could have been any of us.

How many George Zimmermans are out there cruising the streets? How many guys with chips on their shoulders and itchy fingers on the triggers of loaded handguns? How many self-imagined guardians of the peace who say the words “black male” with a sneer?

We don’t yet know every detail of the encounter between Martin and Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., that ended with an unarmed 17-year-old high school student being shot dead. But we know enough to conclude that this is an old, familiar story.

We know from tapes of Zimmerman’s 911 call that he initiated the encounter, having decided that Martin’s presence in the neighborhood was suspicious. We know that when Zimmerman told the 911 operator that he was following Martin, the operator responded, “Okay, we don’t need you to do that.” We know that Zimmerman kept following Martin anyway.

“This guy looks like he is up to no good,” Zimmerman said on the 911 tape.

Please tell me, what would be the innocent way to walk down the street with an iced tea and some Skittles? Hint: For black men, that’s a trick question.

Some commentators have sought to liken Martin’s killing to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, an unspeakable crime that helped galvanize the civil rights movement. To make a facile comparison is a disservice to history — and to the memory of both young men. It is ridiculous to imply that nothing has changed.

When Till was killed in Mississippi at 14 — accused of flirting with a white woman — this was a different country. State-sanctioned terrorism and assassination were official policy throughout the South. Today, the laws and institutions that enforced Jim Crow repression have long since been dismantled. Mississippi, of all places, has more black elected officials than any other state. An African American family lives in the White House.

Black America was never a monolith, but over the past five decades it has become much more diverse — economically, socially, culturally. If you stood on a street corner and chose five black men at random, you might meet a doctor who lives in the high-priced suburbs, an immigrant from Ethiopia who drives a cab, a young aspiring filmmaker with flowing dreadlocks, an unemployed dropout trying to hustle his next meal and a midlevel government worker struggling to put his kids through college.

Those men would have nothing in common, really, except one thing: For each of them, walking down the wrong street at the wrong time could be a fatal mistake.

I hear from people who contend that racism no longer exists in this country. I tell them I wish they were right.

Does it matter that Zimmerman is himself a member of a minority group — he is Hispanic — or that his family says he has black friends? Not in the least. The issue isn’t Zimmerman’s race or ethnicity; it’s the hair-trigger assumption he made that “black male” equals “up to no good.”

This is one thing that hasn’t changed in all the eventful years since Emmett Till’s mutilated body was laid to rest. It is instructive to note that Till grew up in Chicago and just happened to be in Mississippi visiting relatives. Young black men who were born and raised in the South knew where the red lines were drawn, understood the unwritten code of behavior that made the difference between survival and mortal danger. Till didn’t.

Today, young black men grow up in a society where racism is no longer deemed acceptable. Many live in integrated neighborhoods, attend integrated schools, have interracial relationships. They wonder why their parents prattle on so tediously about race, warning about this or that or the other, when their own youthful experience tells them that race doesn’t matter.

What could happen on the way home from the store with some Skittles and an iced tea?

Whether Zimmerman can or should be prosecuted, given Florida’s “stand your ground” law providing broad latitude to claim self-defense, is an important question. But the tragic and essential thing, for me, is the bull’s-eye that black men wear throughout their lives — and the vital imperative to never, ever, be caught on the wrong street at the wrong time.

 

By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, March 22, 2012

March 24, 2012 Posted by | Civil Rights, Racism | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Message Is Always The Same”: The Race-Baiting Continues

I’ve been holding off on writing something about the bizarre spectacle of the Derrick Bell “exposé” that has consumed the nuttier corners of the right in the last couple of days, simply because it’s so weird and pathetic that I wasn’t sure exactly how to talk about it beyond simple ridicule.

In case you missed it, here’s the story, briefly: Just before he died, conservative provocateur Andrew Breitbart said his web enterprises would soon release an explosive video that would transform the 2012 election by revealing Barack Obama’s radical ties.

The video turned out to be of something that was not only utterly unremarkable, but had been reported before. In 1991, when Obama was a student at Harvard Law School, the school was embroiled in a controversy over the under-representation of minorities on the faculty. Derrick Bell, the first black tenured professor at the school and a widely admired figure in legal circles, announced that he would take a leave until the school made efforts to hire more minority faculty. Obama spoke at a rally in support of Bell, and in support of more minorities on the faculty. And that’s the shocking revelation. Oh, and one more thing that conservatives are up in arms about—they hugged. Really.

Over at Breitbart’s web site, I count eight separate pieces on Derrick Bell (who died last year), trying to make the case that he was some kind of insane radical pushing radical theories of radicalism, all with the intention of oppressing white people, which is obviously what Barack Obama is up to as well. Just to get a flavor, here’s an excerpt from one of the articles:

Racialism is so woven into the thinking of Bell, and many believe Barack Obama, any white individual, regardless of ideology or personal attribute lacks the ability to understand and relate racism in America. Consequently, the notion of racial quotas is not simply based upon some idea of equality of opportunity, they must be imposed as white’s [sic] are inferior to blacks in an area Bell and Obama see as critical. While we like to think of equality as color blind, that is not the view Bell shared as a “truth” Obama embraced and encouraged others to do, as well.

You’ll notice the chain of logic, though I use that term loosely: Here’s an exaggeration of something Derrick Bell once said, “many believe” Obama thinks in the same way, here’s a leap to a parody of policies Obama doesn’t actually support, here’s a conclusion about how Obama hates white people and wants to screw them.

From the beginning of Breitbart’s enterprise, race-baiting was a key element of his attack on Barack Obama, one that continues even after his death. And he always had plenty of company, from Glenn Beck saying Obama “has a deep-seated hatred of white people,” to Rush Limbaugh’s repeated insistence to his white listeners that Obama was motivated by racial hatred in everything he did. “Obama’s entire economic program is reparations,” Limbaugh proclaimed. “The days of [minorities] not having any power are over, and they are angry,” he said. “And they want to use their power as a means of retribution. That’s what Obama’s about, gang.” When in 2009 he found a story about a white kid getting beaten up by a black kid on a school bus, Limbaugh said, “In Obama’s America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, ‘Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on.'” And yes, he did that last part in an exaggerated “black” accent.

The message is always the same: Obama and the blacks are mad, and they’re coming for you. Yet people like the Breitbart folks and Limbaugh have two problems. First, they’re running out of material. There aren’t any more shocking revelations to be had. The best they can do is try to make mountains of racial resentment out of the most innocuous molehills, like the fact that Obama supported Derrick Bell’s effort to diversify the faculty when he was a law student. And second, by now anyone who can be convinced that Obama is a secret Black Panther never thought otherwise. The guy has been president for three years. Americans are pretty familiar with him. He hasn’t actually started herding white people into concentration camps, and it’s an awfully tough sell to tell people that he might any day now.

This is a version of the larger problem conservatives have as we get into the 2012 election. The argument many of them will be making, in various forms, is this: Forget about what Obama has actually done. That doesn’t tell you anything. Let me tell you a story about his secret desires, his wicked thoughts, his venomous heart. That’s what your decision should be based on. You hear it from media bloviators, you hear it from interest groups, like the NRA screeching that if he’s re-elected Obama will outlaw guns, and you hear it from Mitt Romney, who is forever claiming that deep down Obama doesn’t much love America and wants to turn it into a European-style social-welfare state. Who are you going to believe, them, me, or or your own eyes?

Watching this stuff is immensely dispiriting, I’ll grant you. But it should be some consolation that it doesn’t seem to be working.

 

By: Paul Waldman, The American Prospect, March 9, 2012

March 10, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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