What the Saints Have to Say about Trump, Roseanne, and Human Dignity

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Last week, a political firestorm erupted when Roseanne Barr tweeted that Barack Obama’s close adviser Valerie Jarrett resembled the offspring of the “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes.” Laying aside the fact that Jarrett did forge political and personal ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and its U.S. offshoots while in office, associating blacks with primates proved beyond the pale. ABC instantly canceled the top-rated series on television – and Democrats blamed her toxic tweet on Donald Trump and all his supporters.

How a former Green Party presidential hopeful who advocated beheading Wall Street bankers became totemic of all Republicans is itself a useful lesson in misapplying labels. But she tweeted just days after President Trump called members of MS-13 – who commit barbaric and sometimes literally Satanic crimes – “animals,” and his words had been falsely reported as referring to all illegal immigrants.

Nancy Pelosi – ever the “ardent, practicing Catholic” – countered that every human being contains a “spark of divinity” (the sort of mystical language she usually uses only about abortion).

The episodes raise a vital question: What makes us human?

Scientists define humans as the species homo sapiens sharing an common strand of DNA. But from at least the time of Socrates, philosophers identified mankind as the species uniquely endowed with reason. “It is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust,” Aristotle wrote (Politics, Book I).

People of faith have historically said something more separates us from the animals than the use of our rational faculties: Moral behavior. Many of us have casually described someone who is boorish or uncouth by saying, “He acts like an animal.” For example, the New York Times ran an op-ed called “Donald Trump and Other Animals.”

However, it may surprise some to learn that Jesus Himself used this idiom. He called King Herod a “fox” (St. Luke 13:31-32), and some of the Pharisees “serpents, [the]generation of vipers” (St. Matthew 23:33). St. John the Baptist, the greatest person ever born of woman and who is particularly revered in the Eastern Christian tradition, used identical language (St. Matthew 3:7 and St. Luke 3:7).

This notion permeated classical Western thought. The second-century Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria –who profoundly influenced an entire school of Christian thought – wrote that the Torah taught “the unjust is no man, or more properly speaking a beast in human form … [T]he follower after righteousness alone is man.”

The Church Fathers said this difference could be seen in human physiognomy. St. Basil the Great wrote that, unlike base beasts, the human head looks upward to God. “[W]hen you degrade yourself through the passions of the flesh – and become slave of your belly and lowest parts – you approach the irrational animals and become like one of them,” he wrote.

St. John Chrysostom said the people of Noah’s day “had lost the status of human beings through falling into the pleasures of the flesh.” Noah alone “retained the character of a human … [F]ollowing the Lord’s commands – this is what makes a human being.”  He concluded, “[W]e would call a human being the man who retains the character of a human being.”

One might extrapolate that these Church Fathers would consider the MS-13 modus operandi of raping, torturing, and frequently dismembering their victims to fall short of that minimum.

If sin degenerated the entire human race, Jesus raised humanity by uniting the divine and human natures into one Person. In His Body, Christ raised our nature to unprecedented heights and infused it with the potential for union with Him. Pope St. Leo the Great said that, when Jesus ascended into Heaven, “the Nature of mankind went up, to pass above the angels’ ranks and to rise beyond the archangels’ heights, and to be lifted to a boundless elevation until [it was]allowed to sit with the Eternal Father.”

By no means am I claiming that President Trump had any of these passages in mind when he made his comment. He may have remembered something he heard in his childhood from a kindly parish priest – specifically Bing Crosby in Going My Way. His song “Swinging on a Star,” released just two years before Trump was born, warned students if they pursue vice they “may grow up to be a pig.” (Gabe Kaplan’s class of lovable miscreants on “Welcome Back, Kotter” earned the name “Sweathogs” in a similar fashion.)

At any rate, one is not duty-bound to believe that Trump used the phrase in an unambiguously Nazi-like act of dehumanization. He clarified this the following Tuesday, when he told a pro-life gala, “Every life has meaning and that every life is totally worth protecting.” That distinguished him from his critics, who routinely refer to six-month-old fetuses as “clumps of cells” or “parasites.” It is more likely he used the phrase “animals” (repeatedly) in a figurative sense derived from the earlier Christian moral tradition, that living a truly human life requires adherence to a minimal moral standard.

Every life has infinite value and potential, but not every life rises to the high calling of fulfilling its vocation as a human being. That is for each of us to realize through humble adoration of the Trinity and a life dedicated to keeping His commandments, or to discard through senseless acts of violence – or demonizing reasonable human beings who happen to hold different political opinions than we do.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

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Rev. Ben Johnson is senior editor of the Acton Institute’s Religion & Liberty Transatlantic website, and an Eastern Orthodoax priest. His views are his own.

6 Comments

  1. Rob Schroeder on

    This is really a ridiculous article.
    – The author claims Valerie Jarrett formed political ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and links to a NY Times article. The article does not mention Jarrett’s name.
    – The author claims Jarrett formed personal ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and links to a Politico article. The article does not mention Jarrett’s name.
    – The author claims Jarrett formed personal ties to “offshoots” of the Muslim Brotherhood. He links to a blog post/article, citing a keynote address Jarrett delivered to the Islamic Society of North America annual conference in 2009. The blog post/article says: “ISNA is a byproduct of the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization that formed the worldview of Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden.”
    There is nothing else in the article/blog post to actually prove ISNA is the byproduct of the Muslim Brotherhood or is in any way related to al-Zawahiri or Osama bin Laden. There are no links. We are to accept it as fact, because.
    Curiously, the author of this article/blog post is…the Rev. Ben Johnson! Citing one’s self is an interesting move. So, the proof that Jarrett formed personal ties with the US offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood is that the Rev. Ben Johnson said so. Are you serious?
    – If it is true that MS-13 is filled with such awful human beings that it is morally correct to call them animals, then so be it. However, since this is ostensibly a Catholic website, we might actually look at Catholic social teaching, since, for those interested in actual facts, President Trump rescinded temporary protected status for El Salvadorans, in place since 2001 and the largest group with TPS status. The Trump administration rescinded TPS in January of this year, ordering them out by September 2019.
    If the scant members of MS-13 in the US pose such a huge threat to the American population, surely the El Salvadoran population is at an infinitely higher risk, given that animalistic MS-13 is located in their country.
    What does the Catholic Church say about the right to seek asylum from danger in one’s own country?
    “Respect for the fundamental right of asylum can never be denied when life is seriously threatened in one’s homeland.”
    – Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People
    From the USCCB: “The first principle of Catholic social teaching regarding immigrants is that people have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families.”
    “When there are just reasons in favor for it, he must be permitted to migrate to other countries and to take up residence there.” – John Paul II
    So I guess we can analyze President Trump’s pro-life credentials through random quotes, or by looking at his actual policy record. Unfortunately, it’s pretty clear that there isn’t much room for fact at this website.

  2. Rev. Ben Johnson on

    This is really a ridiculous comment.

    – By President Obama’s own account, Valerie Jarrett had input on literally every decision he made. I notice that you skipped over the first link about Jarrett, which established this at length (source: http://therightswriter.com/2009/09/valerie-jarrett-the-next-van-jones/) I confess the author of that profile is me. If my byline troubles you, perhaps you will believe the New York Times (though you would be part of an ever-dwindling number of people who do so). Robert Draper wrote in July 2009: “When I asked Obama if he runs every decision past her, he answered without hesitation: ‘Yep. Absolutely.'” (Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/26/magazine/26jarrett-t.html?pagewanted=8&_r=1) By all accounts, Jarrett exercised that personal authority throughout his administration, including in 2012, when he met with the Muslim Brotherhood. Months later, the NYT still described Jarrett as Obama’s “gatekeeper” and quoted a close course as saying, “Valerie is effectively the chief of staff.” (Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/02/us/politics/valerie-jarrett-is-the-other-power-in-the-west-wing.html)

    – The link to my article about Jarrett’s speech to ISNA served to establish Jarrett’s personal involvement in forging the ties (which you previously claimed did not exist). ISNA’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood are so well-known as to hardly need elaboration. Had you sought any, Google would have been your friend. Here, for instance, is a recounting of just a few of them:

    “Sami Al-Arian, an admitted Muslim Brotherhood operative from 1978 to 1983[5], is one of ISNA’s founders.[6] He was convicted in 2006 for his involvement with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group. In November 1987, ISNA established ISNA-Political Awareness Committee. It was led by Abdurrahman Alamoudi, who was an ISNA regional representative.[7] He was convicted on terrorism-related charges in 2004 and has admitted to being a secret Muslim Brotherhood operative. He wrote from his prison cell, ‘I am, I hope, still a member of the Muslim Brotherhood organization in the USA.'[8]

    “Declassified FBI memos reveal that ISNA was identified as a Brotherhood front as early as 1987. One memo cites a source that has traveled worldwide on behalf of ISNA and other Brotherhood entities who is ‘convinced that this organization has a secret agenda which includes the spread of the Islamic Revolution to all non-Islamic governments in the world which does include the United States.’”

    This source alone continues to list ISNA’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood for 10 pages. (Source: https://clarionproject.org/islamic-society-north-america-isna/) It is but one of numerous sources documenting these links.

    So, your proof that I erred in statements is ultimately… that you, an anonymous com-box commenter, said so. Are you serious?

    – In any event, Jarrett’s (documented) ties to Islamist extremists are not the subject of the article. The subject (as the title may have alerted you) is President Trump and Roseanne Barr’s statements about human beings, animals, and how the Church Fathers assessed the issue.

    – You close by quoting statements about the right to migrate – which has nothing whatever to do with the topic of the article (again, as the title may have alerted you): Donald Trump and Roseanne Barr’s comments and the patristic notion of what it means to be truly human. Your diversion is, in other words, a red herring.

    – You wrote, “If it is true that MS-13 is filled with such awful human beings that it is morally correct to call them animals, then so be it.” As this is the entire point of the article’s inquiry (which, I note a third time, the title may have alerted you), you have conceded its entire point. This may illuminate why you wish to drag in so many off-topic subjects and erroneous assertions: In the end, you admit that you are without a point to make.

    So, I guess we can analyze your opposition to my article through random, off-topic quotations, and your lack of curiosity, or by looking at the article’s topic and the Church Fathers’ actual record. Unfortunately, it’s pretty clear that there isn’t much room for facts in your response.

    • Rob Schroeder on

      1. You claimed Jarrett forged personal and political ties with the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. You are now saying we should ASSUME she did so because she was a close advisor to President Obama. This is absurd. Either you have proof she met with members of the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, or you do not. If you don’t have proof, we could assume practically anything you don’t have proof about.
      2. You established President Trump’s pro-life bona fides, literally quoting him saying “Every life has meaning and that every life is totally worth protecting.” These are your words, not mine.
      How does ending TPS for El Salvadorans in the US protect their lives, given members of MS-13 are animals?

  3. Rev. Ben Johnson on

    I’ll indulge your off-topic comments once again.

    1. Obama “ran every decision” past Valerie Jarrett. His meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood (and other forms of support for their agenda, e.g., covertly backing the toppling of U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak) established political ties to the MB. She also spoke to ISNA and allowed the president to meet with its members. Since you’ve apparently dropped your contention that there is no proof ISNA is tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, that establishes her personal ties to MB’s offshoot.

    Your admission that you were wrong about ISNA’s manifold ties to the Muslim Brotherhood could have been more pronounced, but I accept it nonetheless.

    2. The Trump quotation disproves the notion that he views MS-13 members as literally subhuman. It is more logical to conclude that he used the phrase to describe those who engage in immoral and irrational behavior – in the same sense as the saints used it. This, I note a fourth time, is the topic of the article – as the title and its entire contents may have informed you. And I note, for the second time, that your obsession with immigration policy is a red herring.

    Since you’ve conceded 1) the main point of the article vis-a-vis the saints and human morality; and now 2) your indefensible notion that there is no proof ISNA is tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, you’re without a point to make.

    I can’t say your contributions shed an iota of light on this conversation.

    • Rob Schroeder on

      Well it’s obvious you aren’t interested in having an adult discussion. I don’t have time for the right wing outrage machine, personally.
      1. If you don’t understand that “ran every decision by Valerie Jarrett” is a metaphorical statement, then there’s no point in talking with you. Quite obviously, it would be literally impossible for President Obama to run every decision he ever made by Jarrett unless she had a secure connection to the President at all times. Since she…was doing stuff besides standing next to the President for eight years.
      2. Have you seen the famous photo of the Situation Room during the raid that killed bin Laden? Guess who was not in the room? Valerie Jarrett! Can you confirm for us that President Obama did not make a single decision in that room, and can you let us know how you know this?
      3. Your claim that the US “supported the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood” by backing the toppling of Mubarak is patently absurd. The US supported a transition to a democratic regime, because that’s what the US has always done. Dictators are bad? Just because the Muslim Brotherhood also wanted Mubarak gone does not mean the US 100% supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda.
      3. Again, you simply make things up. Your own blog post states that a member of ISNA attended a Ramadan dinner and prayed at an event. You have proof President Obama met this person? Please share your proof. Or, are you making things up again?
      4. My “obsession with immigration policy” is discussing how President Trump’s words and actions regarding MS-13 are incoherent from a Catholic perspective. Whether MS-13 members are human, subhuman, nonhuman, or whatever, it is patently obvious to any person willing to not sing Hosannas to Trump regardless of what he does that:
      – If it is true that MS-13 is extremely dangerous;
      – If it is true that MS-13 has the vast majority of its members in El Salvador
      – If it is true that El Salvadorans came to the US on TPS to escape drug and gang-fueled violence, since President Bush established TPS in 2001
      – It logically follows that deporting hundreds of thousands of people to El Salvador will literally put their lives at risk.
      This is entirely relevant since you somehow managed to cite that Donald Trump is relying on Christian moral tradition in his dealings with MS-13. If he were relying on Christian moral tradition, he would not be sending hundreds of thousands of people into the warring hands of MS-13. Since that is Catholic teaching.
      I don’t have anything else to say. You can make up whatever you want.

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