From Pronouns to Names: The Latest Front in the “Gender Identity” Wars

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, identity is not self-invented: it comes directly from God. Gender-neutral names seek to undermine that God-given identity.

In case you missed it, Cosmopolitan assured us on December 28 that “it’s 2022…and…people are…actively working to break the very tired male-female binary” (emphasis original). To ensure we shall overcome the discriminatory boundary of “male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:28), Cosmo gave us a year-end present: “100 gender-neutral baby names that will be perfect for your future angel on earth.”  

Where does one start? Since people generally don’t begin picking baby names until they’re pregnant, there’s nothing really “future” about your bundle of joy who is not, by the way, an “angel” but a flesh-and-blood human person, which is precisely why he or she has a sex. But I digress.

No doubt, some Crisis readers may ask why I am even bothering to take notice of what Cosmopolitan thinks. Well, the magazine still poses as avant-garde, though its three million readers are now not just adult women looking for an “edge” to sex but also teenage girls whose ideas about sex, marriage, and relationships are being shaped by mass circulation magazines targeted at them. And when such a magazine starts out with a self-evident tone about the “very tired gender binary,” know that there’s an ideological agenda afoot. Catholics ignore that at their peril.

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I recently called names “a side battle in the contemporary pronouns war.”  I’m starting to think they might be a new front. I argued—against some school districts’ usurpatory “don’t ask/don’t tell” policies vis-à-vis parents when allowing children to substitute names in school according to their “gender identities”—that this notion of names is alien to both Judeo-Christian tradition as well as broader cultural history. 

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, identity is not self-invented: it comes directly from God (e.g., He renames Jacob Israel) and indirectly from parents (e.g., Zechariah, who confirms his son’s name as John, albeit on angelic instruction). This tallies with broader cultural history: nobody names himself. Even if one subsequently legally changes his name, he alters what he received. In my view, a public institution’s tampering with the name a parent legally gave that child represents the secular equivalent of taking a name in vain.

In the past, Catholic critics of child-naming practices usually focused on the abandonment of “Christian names” (the term which, once upon a time, was what we called first names) in favor of the trendy. That phenomenon tended to predominate for girls: parents are more prone to experiment with names that are “cutesy,” “non-traditional” (i.e., non-Christian), or illiterate (i.e., deliberately misspelled) for their Brittanys, Khalessis, and Jordens rather than for their Jameses, Noahs, or Benjamins. I note in passing the possible underlying sexism, which seems to take girls less seriously than boys, who will “pass on the name.”

Even as regards naming children after parents or relatives, St. John Chrysostom addressed that back in the fourth century. Rather than naming kids after relatives to honor them in life and after death, John seems to suggest leaving the honoring to God. Instead, parents should choose names that “very early [inspire] in children the taste for virtue.” The Golden-Tongued urged parents, in his “On Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up their Children” (47-49) to “call your children by the names of the righteous,” not only to solicit their heavenly patronage but to be an incentive to children to imitate their goodness and follow their paths.  

Compare that to naming your daughter after a pagan dragon mistress from Game of Thrones.

But we’ve moved far beyond that. Contemporary Gnosticism (with its embodied “angels”) is rapidly marrying an ethic of choice, with disastrous cultural consequences. In the past, a name established relations: to parents, to family, to biology, to heavenly patronage. Today’s Gnosticism that masquerades as heir to the West’s heritage of freedom and meaning so atomizes and disembodies the individual as to shatter all relationships and even deny sexual differentiation.   In the past, a name established relations: to parents, to family, to biology, to heavenly patronage. Today’s Gnosticism so atomizes and disembodies the individual as to shatter all relationships and even deny sexual differentiation.Tweet This

For a long time, “progressive” parents deferred Baptism supposedly to leave the “choice” of what religion to follow to their grown children, as if religion is the one area where children are hermetically sealed against external influences for 18 years. (We even have “Catholics” arguing that infant baptism abridges human rights.) 

From religion, we moved to sex. We have “advanced” to the situation where sex/gender is called something “inferred” or “assigned” at birth; and while many states still record their “best guess” on birth certificates, the avant-garde want parents to stop “revealing gender” (i.e., telling people you’re expecting a boy or girl) and states to omit sex from public documents. 

Will the new “cutting edge” be desexing names? Cosmo to the rescue on that! But since culture lags behind the vanguard (and some people might not be into Harlowe, Marlowe, or Reese) is the next woke cultural norm to be refraining from a “name reveal” when a child is born? Should we then consider names “fluid” until one is 18 and “chooses” one? Should a child instead receive an interim asexual, genderless number, e.g., “Child 10175?” That’ll solve what’s in a name: mom and dad’s “Rose” will be just as sweet as “William” in their high school homeroom, since they’re all just particularly sonorous and furious labels signifying nothing.  

Except, if people really believed that, they wouldn’t be fighting wars, pronomial, nominal, or adjectival (e.g., Latinx). And they’d admit that Johnny Cash was the man in woke, at least partially enlightened back in 1969 when singing about a fictional father’s progressive parenting skills in “A Boy Named Sue.”

We began January commemorating Jesus’ circumcision, when He received “the name the angel had given Him before He was conceived” (Luke 2:21; cf. Matthew 1:21) and concluded the Christmas season with Christ’s Baptism, prefiguring the sacrament when we receive Christian names. It seems a particularly apt juncture to assess our cultural moment.

  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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