It appeared to be an impromptu comment made at a low-profile moment. But Hillary Clinton’s use of the word “genocide” to describe the Islamic State’s treatment of Christians could change her political profile among some voters — conservative Christians in particular.
The comment came Tuesday at a town hall in Berlin, N.H., where a voter asked if she would join Pope Francis and others in calling the assault on Christians and other religious minorities “by its proper name: ‘Genocide’?” the voter asked, according to the Associated Press. The former secretary of state answered that she had held back on using the term because of the legal implications and the weight, but now “I will because now we have enough evidence.”
The question of how to frame the role of religion in global conflict — particularly in the Middle East — has been hugely divisive for years, with some seeing it as the obvious root while others believe the framework should be more sociological, economic and political. Conservatives, and evangelical Christians in particular, have been increasingly fed up with President Obama and other Democratic leaders who they believe are avoiding religious language to describe Muslim terrorists and, in their view, cruelly downplaying the suffering of Middle Eastern Christians by not explicitly naming the discrimination they face.
Differing ideas about the role of religion is a powerful undercurrent in American politics, with Democrats increasingly pushing back on anything that frames conflict as an inevitable “clash of civilizations,” said Shibley Telhami, a political scientist at the University of Maryland who studies U.S. views of the Middle East, and those of evangelicals in particular.
The reaction among prominent Christian conservatives to Clinton’s statement was swift.
“Thank you Hillary Clinton,” Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor-at-large of National Review Online, wrote Wednesday in a post entitled “The Genocide of Christians: Let’s Be On The Right Side of This.”
“A very important shift that will directly impact the presidential race,” Chris Seiple, a longtime adviser to the federal government on the role of religion in conflict and an advocate for Middle Eastern Christians, wrote Wednesday on Facebook of Clinton’s words.
In an interview, Seiple said the comment would impact the presidential race because it will force candidates to be more specific about their vision for America in the Middle East. They can’t just frame themselves, he said, in opposition to Clinton and Obama, as being “pro-security” and the protectors of Christians; they will have to be more concrete.
“Saying you want [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad to go or a bigger military is cliche. Now a candidate will have to say something for which she-he will be held accountable, per one of the last words that still demands accountability: Genocide,” Seiple said.
Seiple and other watchers of the language around foreign policy and religion said they thought it was the first time Clinton had used the word to discuss the Middle East. Bill Clinton famously said not calling killing in Rwanda genocide and doing more is one of his major regrets.
Seiple said it wasn’t clear why Hillary Clinton took up such a broad, explosive topic when she did. However it will be noted, he said.
“There is something significant that historians will look at and she has to be aware of that. Her own family didn’t call it what it was, and look at the result there. [Bill Clinton’s experience] is undeniably part of her historic context in using that word,” he said.
Telhami said Clinton “has to walk a delicate balance.” While many liberals, including liberal Christians, are concerned about religious persecution in the Middle East, Democrats increasingly have a universalist worldview, he said. They buck against the notion of some intractable, inherent ethnic, racial or religious clash. “This is a world view that does not accept that violence and terrible behavior is rooted in principle in religion, but instead in other political, economic or social factors.”
Tehami, who is a fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, said Clinton has to balance this universalist view, one that doesn’t associate Islam with violence, with being firm on key issues.
“She doesn’t want to come across as indecisive, and Democrats also have a substantial Christian component,” he said.
Michael Wear, who oversaw evangelical outreach for President Obama and now consults faith and political groups, said he didn’t think her comment would automatically prompt votes for or against her, but that it could simply shift the narrative about the role of religion in conflict. She is speaking bluntly about a concern many U.S. Christians have about violence in the Middle East, he said.
“That line of attack won’t be available to a Republican who wants to accuse her, just like they accused Obama, of somehow having a foreign policy driven by political correctness,” he said.
Does Clinton’s comment give any insight as to whether a President Clinton would think or act differently about religion’s role than a President Obama?
“As Obama has already said, there is a difference between running for president and being president, and I think this is, from their perspective, one of those cases,” Wear said.