Evangelical Christians make up some of the president’s most valuable supporters, so when Franklin Graham and the Southern Baptist Convention condemned the administration’s policy of taking children from parents who illegally cross the border, the administration was forced to respond. Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a lengthy and condescending speech in which he argued, based on his reading of Romans 13, that the policy was justifiable because “orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”
Evangelicals largely objected to Sessions’ application of Romans 13 in this context as inappropriate and inconsistent with Christian tradition. But the issue underlying this debate is how this administration conceives of unwanted people. The way the president speaks of immigrants, refugees, and gang members helps shape how his administration imagines them as people. And so, when Trump repeatedly links undocumented immigrants with the brutal gang MS-13 and insists they are not people but animals, it’s easy to see how his administration might come to justify the inhumane separation of children from their parents.
Dehumanizing language does not necessarily lead directly to inhumane policies, but the pull is very strong, and it begins with an attack on the basic conception of personhood. That’s an attack on the bedrock of our democracy and, more troublingly to me as an evangelical, the Christian doctrine of being made in the image of God. We ought to demand that our president and his administration cease from speaking of a group of people as nonpeople not because they might be offended, but because it is a profound lie about the nature of reality, a lie that cuts against an essential belief of our nation.
When Trump first said some people who illegally cross the border “aren’t people — these are animals,” his words ignited a more-heat-than-light debate over whether he was referring to all undocumented immigrants or just violent gang members. But after we (mostly) agreed that he meant the latter, we still faced a larger question, one that is apparently not as easy to answer: Is it wrong to label a group of bloodthirsty gang members as animals — and even if it is wrong, does it really matter, in the big scheme of things? Among conservative evangelicals like myself, the debate has been intense.
When the president makes off-the-cuff comments, the best response often is to not focus too intently on his word choice. Words are very cheap to Donald Trump, and he often speaks without forethought. Analyzing and critiquing everything that comes out of his mouth can be both a waste of time and a distraction from more important issues that directly impact people. For many, Trump’s “animal” designation of MS-13 members falls into this kind of trivial category — a politics of outrage rather than substance. After all, these criminals are unquestionably inhumane.
The politics of outrage, by design, drain us of passion. They make a public event into a private offense and then project that offense back into the public sphere. The president says something that offends us, and we respond by publicly proclaiming our outrage. A danger of this is that it is not in any meaningful sense political. It is not about the common good of our body politic. It is about our personal preferences. It is fundamentally about me reacting to something a politician did that offends me.
Trump’s political approach is perfectly crafted for politics of outrage. He triggers the libs and inflames the right, but it is largely focused on spectacle and identity-signaling. Insofar as any of this involves policies, they are an afterthought, poorly designed, short-lived, easily reversed, unstable, and often malicious. But his statements, even as they are geared at inciting outrage, often have several effects that are fundamentally unjust and dangerous. They trickle down into policies. They morally inform. They waste our time. President Trump invites us to turn everything into outrage, a personal offense — even things that are fundamentally public and political.
The alternative to a politics of outrage is protest — to object to political actions that are contrary to the common good of society, things that prevent the ability to create and sustain a good, just, and beautiful society. Properly done, a political protest is always tied to some value outside of ourselves. It is about acting as citizens with obligations to our neighbors.
The first question we have to ask, then, is whether calling MS-13 members “animals,” “not people,” and “not human beings” troubles us as a personal offense or because it violates some essential political value.
Undoubtedly, some people are personally offended that President Trump called anyone an animal. But there is also legitimate cause for political protest. The problem is not that a man named Donald Trump said this, or that I or my group were personally offended by it, but that objective values that reflect the common good of society, the goal of a good, just, and beautiful society, have been transgressed.
Our system of government was founded upon the ideas of equality and unalienable rights. What it means to be a human is that you are a person, and as a person you naturally have rights. Even when those rights are suspended because of your crimes (as in the case of imprisonment), you never cease to be a person. Similarly, the Bible says that Adam and Eve, and us through them, were created in God’s image. While there are different ways to interpret this teaching, at its most basic, it means humans were created by God as uniquely reflecting God's image.
In both frameworks, our humanity is not something we earn. It is not subjective. It is not established or bestowed by the state or ourselves. Our personhood is an objective fact. It is also not something we can lose. A nonhuman human is nonsense. We can act in defiance of our humanity, we can act inhumanely, as MS-13 does, but when we are inhumane it is precisely because we are human. Only humans can be inhumane.
By calling gang members “animals,” Trump isn’t just denying their personhood — he’s denying the severity of their evil. Animals cannot be “artistically cruel,” as Dostoyevsky once wrote. That kind of evil is unique to humans. Similarly, Christ and the Apostle Paul both described people like animals, but neither claimed that someone had ceased to be a person. There is a categorical difference between describing someone as a “viper,” by which you mean that they have the qualities of being sneaky and deadly, and claiming that they are “not people,” which implies that they are not a certain kind of unique being — a person. Defending someone’s humanity in no way requires leniency — in fact, it was by virtue of their personhood that Christ held them responsible for their sins.
But with all this being said, do we really want to die on the hill of defending the humanity of notoriously brutal criminals?
Yes, we do. This is actually how inherent worth works. A society’s commitment to human dignity is measured by its defense of that dignity for those least able to defend it themselves and those least deserving of it based on their actions. Christ noted that it is easy to love those who love us. But the demand for Christians is that they love their enemies.
In the same way that Christians are called to defend the personhood of the unborn, people with disabilities, and the elderly, we are called to defend the personhood of the violent criminal. We don’t defend only those who we deem to be worth defending.
Denying the humanity of any group of people is an incredibly dangerous act for any government, not because it will hurt their feelings or because it transgresses our personal sense of propriety. It is dangerous and wrong because it opposes one of the most fundamental principles of our democracy and, as an evangelical, a fundamental doctrine of faith.
Far from being a distraction or outrage, as a conservative evangelical, I am compelled to protest the president’s words because they are antithetical to the vision of the good, just, and beautiful society that politics must build toward.
This is particularly true because Trump’s statement was not a one-off comment. As others have detailed, Trump has a long history of classifying gang members as animals. After his comment, the White House released an official document outlining why members of MS-13 are “animals.” Then Trump incited a rally in Tennessee to call MS-13 animals and further labeled them “not human beings.” Then the GOP published an ad attacking Nancy Pelosi for asserting that these criminals were also made in the image of God. Then the White House released a tweet calling them animals, again.
This language has become normalized within the highest levels of our government and the GOP. Language matters. We live in a culture that continually debases language through marketing, political rhetoric, and propaganda. But language does matter. It matters how we refer to the unborn. It matters how we refer to violent criminals. Regardless of whether that unborn child is unwanted, and regardless of whether that criminal is hated by his victims, they remain persons.
While I don’t believe Trump’s dehumanizing language will lead to genocide — although there is historical precedent for that — we would be foolish not to believe that dehumanization won’t have any direct, unjust impact on people. Trump’s instinct to deny the human rights and dignity of those he views as less than human is well established. He called for the killing of the families of terrorists to deter further terrorism, the use of torture on terrorists, the banning of Muslims entering the US, and he has encouraged policy brutality.
How we speak about people forms the way we think about them. If you speak of a group of people as subhuman, even if your intent is “only rhetorical,” it will change the way you view them, and may affect the way you vote or interact with them. Could calling immigrant gang members “not human beings” affect the way ICE agents treat those they detain? Might it make voters more sympathetic to ending asylum to victims of domestic and gang violence? Might it make us apathetic to the tearing of children from their parents at the border? Words are never merely words. And when the word in question is as fundamental as personhood, a great deal hangs in the balance.
Alan Noble is editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, a professor, and author of the forthcoming book Disruptive Witness.