In obituary reflections on the day of her death ten years ago this morning, I dutifully took note of Jean Bethke Elshtain’s bona fides. Elshtain was, for eighteen years, holder of the University of Chicago’s distinguished Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professorship of Social and Political Ethics in the Divinity School, with appointments in Political Science and the Committee on International Relations. She held additional, and numerous, fellowships including at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Bellagio Center of the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim, and at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. She was appointed to the Maguire Chair of Ethics and the Kluge Chair in Modern Culture at the Library of Congress, and garnered notable appointments at Harvard, Georgetown, and Baylor, as well as a seat on the President’s Council for Bioethics under George W. Bush.
The accolades continue with additional honors. In 2002, she was awarded the Goodnow Award, the highest honor bestowed by the American Political Science Association. She delivered the 2005-2006 Gifford Lectures (Edinburgh), following a line of Gifford luminaries including Karl Barth, Hannah Arendt, Henry James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Niels Bohr. In 2011 she received the Democracy Service Award given by the National Endowment for Democracy, there joining previous honorees such as the Dalai Lama, Lech Walesa, and Vaclav Havel. Her matriculation into such already august crowds made them more august still.
Of course, all such honors were built on something. A prolific writer and speaker, Elshtain delivered hundreds of lectures, many seminal, throughout America and abroad, wrote over 600 essays in scholarly journals and journals of civic opinion, and wrote over twenty books, including Women and War, Public Man and Private Woman, Democracy on Trial, Who Are We?, Augustine and the Limits of Politics, Just War Against Terror, and Sovereignty: God, State, and Self.
But after testifying to the litany of her accomplishments, I took a breath back then, as I will now on this denary anniversary of her passing, to note that Elshtain’s scholarly accolades barely revealed her full measure as a scholar. The true estimation of who she was—professionally—is found is assessing the kind of scholar that she was. Several observations help us find our way.
First, she worked where life was lived. I remember with great appreciation our first meeting together. Our conversation included the kinds of things normally discussed at the initial meeting between a new doctoral student and their supervisor. She asked for further particulars regarding my scholarly interests in coming to the University of Chicago, the direction of my doctoral work, expectations for my course of study, exams, and the like. As we finished business, she tossed to the side whatever documents I had brought with me, leaned forward, and asked, “But why ethics? What’s really behind all this?” If she were someone else I might have answered differently. I might have offered some rehearsed speech that the ground of my interest in the academic study of ethics rested, in some one way or the other, in one of the great philosophical preoccupations. But she wasn’t someone else. And, come to it, neither was I. And students like me were drawn to her for very concrete reasons. And, I imagine, she was drawn to students like me for the same. It was no accident we were sitting across from each other. So instead of some possibly more expected answer for a UChicago graduate student, I shrugged to myself, and figured the reason I was puttering about with ethics was quite simple. I reached into my backpack, pulled out the book I was reading, and removed the photos of my children that I had been using as a place marker. “This is my motivation,” I told her. Taking the pictures from me, Elshtain drew them close to her, considered them, mumbled something about “munchkins,” placed them on the table, and reached into her own bag. She plopped on the table before me pictures of her grandchildren: JoAnn, Christopher, Christiane, and Bobby. She smiled at the whole collection, took my photos and handed them back, and said, “We’ll get along just fine.”
All this is to say that Elshtain understood ethics had to have something to say about human life—and had to be able to say it at that place where the rubber meets the road—if it was to be of any use at all.
Second, and relatedly, while Elshtain was a political theorist, she was an unusual one, refusing to be constrained by the narrowness of the discipline. As another of her students, Debra Erickson, put it:
Elshtain’s focus remained fixed on political life: on the attempts of human beings to negotiate their shared existence; to create communities and along with them, the potential for human flourishing. [But] Elshtain also steadfastly maintained the conviction that politics could not be separated from ethics, that politics was a moral endeavor, not a purely instrumental one.
On the one hand, this brings my little “munchkins” back into view. But it also signals Elshtain’s assertion that because politics is a moral endeavor the political theorist, if they are to take human beings seriously, must take religion seriously. In doing so, however, Elshtain, Erickson reminds us, wasn’t seeking merely to explain religion as a phenomenon nor was she simply arguing for basic religious literacy. Instead, Elshtain took the thing seriously. She leveraged religious tradition—no, she stood within religious tradition—in order to explore the fundamental questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? What went wrong? Who can fix it? When? Where is all this going?
This casts Elshtain, Erickson warrants, as that kind of religious studies scholar known as a “theologian.” But not, Erickson warns, as a theologian per se. Elshtain “would not have applied that label to herself. She wrote no systematic theology, nor did she exclusively target the faithful; instead, [she] made use of theological categories in non-dogmatic ways.” As Elshtain herself parsed it,
A scholar with religious convictions should be clear about when he or she is bearing witness to the faith and urging that witness on others through persuasion…and when, by contrast, religiously derived concepts are being drawn upon for scholarly purposes—for which he or she owes no one an apology.
The latter, Erickson concludes, was Elshtain’s typical mode. Her “use of theological concepts hearkened back to a time when talk of God was not taboo, either in the disciplines or in the public square.”
Third, as should be clear by her resistance to academic stove-piping, Elshtain was content with being contentious. However, unlike far too many in these sometimes unnecessarily divisive times, Elshtain did seek to be contentious for its own sake. She simply never shied away from championing uncomfortable truths or what others might think contradictory commitments. She certainly understood the limits and hazards of liberalism yet had no problem defending religious pluralism—though not simply for some banal love of diversity as such. While she stood firmly within the Christian tradition, she affirmed as a self-evident truism the capacity of all people of good will to live and work together. As Erickson reminds us, in the title of what may have been Elshtain’s most theological book, she asked the pointed question, “Who Are We?” In her answer,
[She] argued that we have forgotten who we are: fallen creatures, limited and dependent. Religious pluralism as fact or value should not mean abandoning the concepts that shaped the modern world, even when those concepts, such the Christian drama of creation, fall, and redemption, come from within a particular religious tradition. Without understanding these foundational ideas, Elshtain held, we cannot know ourselves. And if we get ourselves—that is, human beings—wrong, we will get our politics wrong as well.
Following this line, I’ve reflected before on the idea that human beings, as human beings, have a divinely appointed responsibility to care about order and justice. We see this at the very beginning, in the cradle garden. God says to Himself, “Let us make mankind in our image.” Precisely what this means is multi-faceted and complex. Some of it, however, is quite plain and can be found in the clause that immediately follows: “Let us make mankind in our image and let him have dominion over all the earth.” This is the start of human political life. Dominion, of course, is not domination. Human beings were never meant to simply lord over creation and to bend it arbitrarily toward our will. Instead, human authority is always marked by responsibility and a participant in Divine Law. Human authority is a vehicle for the proper exercise of stewardship.
But, as Elshtain rightly kept in view, this “dominion-not-domination” mandate is merely part one of the Edenic plotline. Immediately following the mandate to exercise dominion within limits is the human refusal to do so. From that moment onward, dominion—including political life–has to account for the fact of ongoing human rebellion.
Next, Elshtain understood what was at stake when political theory fails to remember what human beings really are. She and I would sometimes discuss the holocaust, which has always been an important catalyst in my own work. Such human events make clear that the extent to which neighbor has consumed—rather than cared for—neighbor in human history is staggering. Elshtain took for granted that history reminds us that the manifestation in public and private life of certain words: order, concern, community, justice, responsibility, and love, tend toward the welfare of the innocent; while others: disorder, atomization, solipsism, injustice, desertion, and indifference, tend toward their annihilation. She also took for granted that there is, therefore, a human responsibility to stand, individually and in solidarity, on the side of the innocent and to resist, even to the point of employing lethal force, those who mean to harm them. She often displayed a certain impatience against those who failed to respond appropriately to moral evils, such as after September 11. Her invective naturally hit hardest against the terrorists, but she held plenty in reserve for use against her academic peers and ecclesiastical leadership who rationalized terror as, say, payback for the failings of the United States, or for those unable, or unwilling, to distinguish between terrorists (who refuse to discriminate and deliberately target the innocent) and American warfighters (who exercise proportional and discriminate restraint—even at enormous personal risk).
Elshtain would also have approved of the assessment that though global terrorism might not threaten the West’s physical existence, it nevertheless poses very real existential threats: the operation of extremists in our communities, the seduction and recruitment of our young, the radicalization of mosques—each individually and collectively work to poison interfaith relationships, sow distrust among neighbors, and hinder a nation’s zeal to welcome strangers to our shores. This, in turn, desiccates civil society, that essential space between individuals and the state. Thus, though not a threat to life itself, global terrorism is a threat to a way of life and hamstrings the peace, order, and justice that make human flourishing possible.
And human flourishing always mattered much to Jean Elshtain. And it wasn’t a terribly complex thing. In the preface to her magnificent Augustine and the Limits of Politics, she describes what she called a village of the mind, a vision really, that represents a kind of earthly ideal. This village, in which she takes up lodgings in the midst of her own enduring pilgrimage, offers the essentials: good conversation; friendly neighbors; a well-stocked library; book clubs; classic westerns at the movie theatre, and the fortifying sounds that emanate into the street. Such ebullient noise includes hymns from the Lutheran church, bells marking the time from the Catholic church, Torah readings from the synagogue, and rousing gospels from the black Baptist church. In this village, kids play safely at dusk. Parents – moms and dads – read bedtime stories to drowsy children and daily make the effort to give them not quality time but, simply, time. Patrons of the local pub argue politics and religion well into the night. The village is much to be desired. Of course, Elshtain admits:
This village no more exists than does Plato’s far grander “city in speech”…But my village is a more livable, because humbler, place. It has its boundaries, of course, but it extends hospitality to all strangers, wanderers, pilgrims, to the lost, the forlorn, the bold, and the timid. It is a rather simple place…but it is a human landscape, a site within which beings such as ourselves enact daily the small gestures of kindness and trust and care and speaking out for fair treatment that are the stuff of lived life. Because that is not all that beings as ourselves do, the village has its share of malicious gossip and backbiting and pettiness and scandal, but because people have to live and work together, none of this is codified into rival adversarial sides or camps. They understand what it means to tend to the quotidian. They understand forgiveness.
Jean called this village “an alternative to the social contract.” It represents all the thick stuff that ought to reside between the individual and the state. It’s civil society: that aggregation of non-governmental associations and institutions – family, houses of worship, scout troops, small businesses, clubs, and the like that is charged, in various degrees, with the moral formation of citizens. As an earthly ideal it is not perfect. And while it does not indulge in utopian horrors to try and make itself perfect, neither does it allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. It is content, if impatiently so, with approximations of the ideal. In this approximation, neighbor comes to the aid of neighbor; private action serves both private and public ends; folks volunteer their time and resources to get needed things done; they share; they empathize; they long to see, and give appropriate assistance to help ensure, that other people’s children grow into the kinds of men and women with whom they would want their own children to play and woo and marry and mate and raise families of their own.
As I’m threatening to demonstrate, one could go on and on about Jean Elshtain. Suffice it to say, she is much missed. She was cut from an all too uncommon mold. And she and her kind of thinking is critically needed today. She was a Christian realist who understood that both terms—Christian and realist were essential. She avoided both of the twin-errors of naïve idealism and jaundiced cynicism. She knew, contra the naïve, that real, deep, intentional, willful human evil existed and would not be eradicated in history. She also know, contra the more realpolitik-styled realists, that morality needn’t be divorced from politics for politics to be effective. Pace their cynicism, she also knew that certain evils could be eliminated in history and others effectively rolled back. She also knew international affairs needn’t be a zero-sum game.
On this of all days, perhaps among the best things we could do to honor Jean Bethke Elshtain’s memory is to be sure it is never forgotten.
Toward the end of keeping the memory of JBE alive, Providence is launching what we hope is merely the inaugural Jean Bethke Elshtain Fellowship in Christian Realism for the 2023-24 academic year. If you’re interested in thinking deeply about deeply important things worth thinking about find out more here