The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on November 6, 2013
What’s in a Name?

Conflicts over language have occurred periodically all through history—command of sacred languages marking priestly hierarchies, languages of conquerors imposed upon or submissively adopted by the conquered, language as symbolizing class differences. Even today language is at the center of important political conflicts: between Catalan and Castilian in Spain, Flemish and French in Belgium, in campaigns to split existing states along linguistic lines in India, at our doorstep in Quebec where some “francophones” want to separate from the “anglophone” majority in Canada. Language has been involved in most recent “culture wars”  in this country, some with religious overtones.

Three items concerning language, reported by Religion News Service on October 28, 2013, caught by attention. I have been mulling over them. There has been a concerted campaign to pressure the well-known football team Redskins to change its name and logo, which are supposed to be insulting to Native Americans. There was a big demonstration in Denver as the team marched into the stadium where a game was to take place. The event was organized by the American Indian Movement, which I find curious—since the appellation “American Indian” is no longer politically correct. (The new name is somewhat confusing, since in ordinary English “Native Americans” continue to be distinguished from naturalized citizens—since I belong to the latter category, I am thinking of a campaign to ban the use of “Native American” as discriminating against me.) Thus far at least, Dan Snyder, the owner of the team, has refused to consider the change, despite the fact that President Obama has expressed sympathy for the protesters. The demonstration in Denver is unlikely to be the end of the story. A meeting is planned between the Oneida Indian Nation (its foreign ministry?) and the National Football League. Litigation is being considered (“hate speech” and so on). One claim by the protesters is rather startling—that the term “redskins” historically referred to “scalps” brought home as proof of “Indian kill”: “It’s always been about the hatred of Indian skin”.  As I was reflecting on this news item, I was reminded of something that happened close to home a few years ago: The logo of the Massachusetts Turnpike used to be Puritan hat pierced by a presumably Indian arrow. When I first saw this logo, I thought that it was meant as a warning against speeding. Someone, I take it, protested to the Turnpike Authority that it was offensive to Native Americans. The arrow was duly removed, and the Puritan headgear now stands unharmed.

Victimology has become an important fact in American political culture. Any group that considers itself victimized (often rightly so, sometimes only in their own minds) organizes campaigns, not only to stop the alleged victimization, but to prohibit any speech or behavior that may give offense to individuals in the designated victim class. Not being offended has become a sort of civil right, not only culturally but increasingly in law. A book by the late sociologist John Murray Cuddihy was published in 1978, when the recent victimological upsurge was just beginning; in retrospect it was predictive. The book, No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste, described cases where, respectively, Protestants, Catholics and Jews had to modify their more hairy beliefs in deference to American civility. One might imagine a future campaign to enshrine the right not to be offended in a constitutional amendment.

The second item is rather different. A couple in Tennessee had named their baby boy “Messiah”. I have not explored how this matter ended up in court. In any case, Lu Anne Ballew, a state judge, ordered the baby to be registered as “Martin” rather than “Messiah”. She explained that the name “Messiah” should be reserved for Jesus Christ. Not surprisingly, a panel supervising the Tennessee judiciary reprimanded Judge Ballew for inappropriate religious bias; this may be followed by a charge of judicial misconduct. I have no doubt that the supervisory panel’s action was constitutionally correct. I do wonder who was the aggrieved party in this case? The baby’s parents, for the state having interfered with the right to name their child? The judge, perhaps standing in for millions of Christians, being offended by an appropriation of Jesus’ messianic title? Or any number of non-Christian citizens who felt discriminated against by the judge’s ruling? Actually, the case of baby “Messiah” is not as unusual as one might think. Somebody did some research in connection with this story: The name “Messiah” was number 387 in popularity in 2012, according to applications for Social Security cards.  If a researcher would want to demonstrate how far off Judge Ballew was, not only constitutionally but statistically, here are some research questions: How many babies were to get other Biblical names? Abraham, Joshua, Timothy? How about Mohammed? And, then there is the huge number of Latino babies entering life with the name “Jesus”? [Perhaps I should not have mentioned this. There must be any number of atheist activists or other ultra-strict separationists salivating for new opportunities of litigation. But then they probably don’t read my blog.] Which, by the way, recalls another politically correct name change:  From “Hispanic” to “Latino”. Who was linguistically offended here? Brazilians, of course.  Are there other Portuguese-speakers in South America? I don’t think that Haitians would like to be subsumed under the category “Latino”, though both French and Creole can justly claim linguistic descent from Latin.

If atheist activists are unlikely to read my blog, Malaysian judges are even more unlikely to read the decisions of Tennessee courts. Or they might have been encouraged in a recent judgment of the highest court in Malaysia (on the venerable legal maxim of “what is good for the goose, is good for the gander”—somewhere in the vast library of Islamic jurisprudence, somewhere there must be a fatwa which cites an Arabic version of this maxim). The high court held that the word “Allah” may not be used for “God” in Malay translations of the Bible, its use being reserved for Muslims. Of course this litigation was initiated by aggrieved Islamists. I understand that some Christians are planning to appeal. To whom, I wonder? The United Nations Human Rights Council? That body is not famous for its concern about anti-Christian discrimination.

The third RNS item takes us back to offended non-Christians (or, perhaps in this instance, any non-theists). Cadets at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado are obliged to swear an oath to abide by the institution’s honor code—not to lie, not to steal, and the like. The oath has always followed general American legal practice by concluding with the phrase “so help me God”. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a secularist organization particularly troubled by alleged Evangelical influences in the American armed forces, wrote to the Academy, protesting that the phrase violated the First Amendment, in effect constituting an establishment of religion by a branch of government. The protest of course implied a threat of litigation. The Air Force Academy immediately raised a white flag. The phrase is no longer part of the oath. (No one has yet sued because the oath arguably contains portions derived from the Ten Commandments.) This particular incident is of course part of the much broader campaign (by a small but noisy group of secularists whom I have called “Kemalist”) to expunge all religious expressions from public spaces. The federal courts continue to be busy with cases arising from this campaign.

Although religion is only marginally involved in the name change I’m about to mention, it does belong to the topic of victimology. The victims of historic racial oppression in America are more justified than many other groups in claiming an iconic status in the victimological hierarchy. For that reason most decent people have gone along with the name changes that have become conventional in recent decades—from “Negro”, to “black”, to “African American”—although it is not altogether clear why the earlier terms came to be deemed offensive. The feminist and homosexual movements have also gone through various name changes. For a while the term “gay” was acceptable to apply to all non-heterosexual orientations. But more and more groups felt left out. Thus the politically correct term came to be “Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgender”. Another word added by some was “Queer”, which I understand to refer to the classically “transgressive” quality of non-traditional sexuality. With or without the addition, this is a rather a mouthful (no pun intended). Understandably, the abbreviation is now generally used – “GLBT/Q”. So far, so good. But very recently I have noticed a new usage: “LGBT/Q”!  Why this change? Could it be a very curious return of the repressed—in this case, of old-fashioned bourgeois etiquette? “Ladies first”?? – [I do know that some committed gays and lesbians read my blog—with a few reservations, I am in sympathy with their cause. So perhaps someone will explain the terminological change to me. ]

Let me conclude with a sentence that is very dear to me. It comes from the writings of an anonymous Sufi mystic, who lived in medieval Baghdad when it was a great center of civilization and learning: “Deliver us, o Allah, from the sea of names!”

  • Anthony

    “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the ‘true meaning’ of its creed: we hold these ‘truths’ to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” Therein, Peter Berger, lies “what’s in a name”. That is, the human desire towards justice – the moral arc (though our society has allowed both Mission creep and Victimology to corrupt idea). I think Steven Pinker has defined what you ask as the expanding circle. At some level the aspirants cataloged in essay have linked name connotation with our system of belief and concluded that what they are being called is indeed the “thing” (with all its inherited denotations and connotations). What may be happening consciously or unconsciously is a confluence of humanistic values which privileges human flourishing (both secular and sectarian). This may be inferred from transformation of human life by science, technology, and reason (essentially, modernity). Yet, you are on to something when you say deliver us from the sea of names.

  • Peter Jessen

    The National Football
    League team Washington Redskins will play the Minnesota Vikings tomorrow night
    (Nov 7), in
Minneapolis. The American Indian 
Movement will be in full dungeon
    about the name. A sea of names plagues the logic of 
this discussion as well. An ocean of meanings that change over
    time does as well.

    It is the meanings that
    live on that create the controversies and demonstrate that not many are
    logicians. As 
this Blog came out this morning, another blog discussed it this
    morning as well (by Ron Edwards, His
    column about the Redskins controversy, “Mr. Bellecourt is
“Redskins” Controversy” discusses the campaign of 

Clyde Bellecourt,
    now in his
 late 70s. I know him, and I knew his
 brother Vernon back in the
    protest days of the early 70s at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, especially
    regarding the 
modern day Wounded Knee “event.” Ron Edwards is a mutual friend of ours. 

    Clyde will be at the meeting Berger refers to between the NFL and the Oneida
    Indian Nation. Berger’s aside regarding
    whether it is its foreign ministry is but another name in the sea of truth
    claims and who claims to have the truth.

    Edwards and Bellecourt
    give us another example of Voegelin’s “The order of history emerges from the
    history of order.” Here is a paragraph 
from Edward’s blog that I doubt many
    Americans taking sides on this issue are aware of, that adds not only to the
    sea of names but the sea of meanings behind the name, its own syllogism dagger: 

“George Preston Marshall, the 
owner who
    gave the team its name in 1932, was a leader in the NFL movement that 
    banned Blacks, league wide, in 1933, a ban not lifted until

    Before the Washington
 integrated in 1962, Jim Brown, as one Jewish sport writer liked to write,
    ‘regularly integrated 
the Washington end zone’. Marshall always
 had played
    “Dixie” before the “Star Spangled Banner.”


After the NFL
    integrated, Marshall said he would “start signing Negroes when the Harlem
    Globetrotters start signing whites.” Marshall died in 1969, leaving most of his
    money to the creation of the Redskins Foundation, stipulating that none of its
    money be directed to ‘any purpose which supports
or employs the principle of
    racial integration in any form.’”

    Current owner
 Snyder said
    he would “never” change the name.

 Thus, Edwards asks if the Jewish owner of
    the Washington team would be OK with calling it “The Washington Kikes”?

 Are we not in the middle of “it all depends
    on whose ox gets gored,” with the big gore being one’s (or one’s group’s) sense
    of respect getting gored, with “no respect” being another name for

    How do we respond to this
    next statement by Edwards, from the sea of names we call our perspectives/opinions/beliefs:
    religious, secular, political, and/or ideological: “ All people have feelings
    and sensitivity about how they are referred to. Mr.
Bellecourt and the Native
    American nation have indicated it is never acceptable to disrespect by name or
    inference the rich, proud history of America’s first nation.”

    It is interesting that in
    Canada, the word “Indian” is not used, nor “native Canadian.” Rather, they use
    the term: First Nation.” They also use the term aboriginal. In Canadian
    business there is the name of a position in business called “Aboriginal

Certainly part of the evolution of “meaning” regarding names
    depends on age, not only of young people vs. their elders, but also in
time. Thus “Christian” was once a
 pejorative, as was “Roman Catholic”
    (by which Protestants meant not a “universal” church but a “Roman” (Italian)

All this reminds us of the
    debates begun with the 95 Theses (actually 2 centuries into the debate). Some say Philipp Melanchthon made up the hammer and nail story. Regardless, the 
printed circulation took

    For those of us who still
    think highly of the Reformation (more names: “Renaissance,” which means
“reformation;” and “restoration,” the claim of the Mormons). When Luther gave his “Here I Stand” response
    at the Diet (daily meetings) at Worms, Thomas Carlyle, over 300 years later
    called it “the greatest moment in the modern history of man.”

    We are now in a sea of
    various victim proffered paths to salvation, often at the expense of others’
    salvation. As comments in the previous
    blog (“Cowboys and Calvinists”) demonstrated, there is indeed a sea of names
    for the path to salvation. 

 Nonetheless, in their own way, each seems to have
    the same cheer: “Go team!”

  • Gary Novak

    What’s in a name? Some answer: everything. For them, the task of language is not to “cut nature at the joints” (i. e., describe reality accurately) but to construct it. Listen to theologian Don Cupitt: “Many people think of the world as being simply there, inertly factual and independent of us. Not so: since our minds, as minds, work only in language, nothing is real and nothing is there until it has been formed and produced in and by language” (“Creation out of Nothing,” p. 194). A rose wouldn’t smell just as sweet by any other name; it wouldn’t even exist.

    No wonder the language police are so obsessed with politically correct language. There is no inviolable human dignity we can have in mind even as we say “Redskin” or “Indian.” If we don’t get the language “right” (as defined by the language police), all is lost. The language is all there is. Let’s keep changing it, so no one can become comfortable! I once had a student who referred to black South Africans as “African Americans.” When she realized her mistake, she could find no politically correct way to remedy it and fell silent in confusion and on the defensive. Mission accomplished. There was a time when one could avoid the charge of racism by not using deliberately offensive slurs. Now one is a racist if one hasn’t downloaded Politically Correct Language 7.1. But lots of ordinary folks have figured out that the language police are not morally authoritative but hypocritical in claiming to enforce respect for something they don’t believe exists.

    There is no doubt, of course, that language is important in interpreting, framing, spinning, and revealing reality. Berger has written a good deal about the sociolinguistic construction of reality. But, unlike Cupitt, he does not try to usurp God’s power to “create out of nothing.”

  • Ole Borg

    Dear Peter Berger.

    This is not a comment, but actually a letter, as I don’t know how to

    address You otherwise.

    To make it short and clear: A am a 69 years old sociologist from Denmark,

    Copenhagen. I have no distinct merits to present, but quite early I began

    to read your books, and with much pleasure.

    In fact, I began to translate one of them: “A Rumour Of Angels”. This book

    is not widely recognized in Denmark, but I find it very interesting: Your

    concept “signals of transcendence” compares well to a danish theologist

    and philosopher named K.E. Løgstrup. Born in 1905 he was a major

    intellectual in Denmark until his death in 1981. His concept of “suveræne

    livsytringer”, “sovereign/supreme expressions of life” seems to bee

    similar or maybe even identical with your “signals of transcendence”.

    The translation has never been finished, but now I have found time to

    continue the job.

    Will you approve my attempt? And how do we proceed?

    Kindly, Ole Borg

    Strandgaards Alle 138

    5300 Kerteminde


  • Bill

    The Malaysian decision seems bizarre, given that Arabic-speaking Christians have been referring to God as “Allah” since long before Islam existed. Jesus, speaking Aramaic, would also have used “Alah” for “God”. But there is something ironic about the dispute too. I think it’s likely that a substantial majority of American Christian would say that “Allah” is the Muslim deity, who should not be confused with the God of Christianty. In other words, they would agree with the Malaysian court and disagree with Malaysian Christians.

  • qet

    I would be late to the party, except there is no party. A pity, because there ought to be. I don’t know how it is I have so long overlooked Berger. His “Social Construction of Reality” has been in my Amazon cart for a long time. I guess it’s past time I actually had it shipped. For good measure I just added a few others. I have to believe that were Berger a young professor today seeking tenure, blog writings like this would sink his career. As to his question–”Why this change? Could it be a very curious return of the repressed—in this case, of old-fashioned bourgeois etiquette?”–I believe I can answer that. This sort of thing is in evidence all over the place (the place being, of course, the Internet) and has been for some years (decades if you remember history BI). Modern feminist writers (because I can’t be certain of the views of feminists who don’t write, right?), 99% of whom are women (and the 1% who are men are just sickening in their unoriginal obsequiousness) devote themselves to writing about sexuality and gender, topics that in the hands of non-feminists are held by feminists to be mere “social constructs” (though I haven’t yet read Berger’s book, I suspect that he, like me, would never qualify social constructs by the word “mere”). They prescribe a host (truly) of rules for interactions between straight men and women, straight boys and girls (not so much for interactions between Ls and Ls, Gs and Gs, or Ls and Gs; and, to borrow from Berger’s repetoire: when will an L or a G sue over the use of “straiight” as a descriptor of heterosexuals?). In their obsession with sex they are no different from the Puritans, both the actual historical ones and everyone else since whose views of and rules for managing gender contact and sexual conduct tend to what is usually called “prudish.” Feminists ARE the new Puritans, and they seek power and authority to prescribe THEIR rules. And because modern femininsts are, like most modern left-liberals, pure products of the academy, they seek power in, and see power only as reflected in, the prohibition and prescription of words. Just observe the work they have put in lately to the concepts of “sexual assault” and “sexual harrassment,” most especially on college and university campuses (soft targets, those), and you will see a positively militant Puritanism on the march.