Jean Bethke Elshtain, a Political Scientist Unafraid to Talk God, Has Died

"We're in real danger of reducing the person to his or her genotype," she warned in 2001.
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The University of Chicago

"Public intellectuals, much of the time at least, should be party poopers," Jean Bethke Elshtain declared in 2001. Elshtain, who died Sunday at age 72, formally spent her last 18 years at the University of Chicago Divinity School, but throughout her career, she also held appointments at other universities such as Harvard and Yale; fellowships, including the Guggenheim; and a seat on the now-defunct President's Council on Bioethics.

"What I do is political theory with ethics as the heart of the matter," she wrote in 2006 as she prepared to give the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh. Being chosen to give these lectures is one of the highest achievements a moral philosopher, theologian, or political theorist can claim; Elshtain took her place beside Hannah Arendt, William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, John Dewey, Iris Murdoch, and other intellectual giants. 

As befits a political theorist, Elshtain's ideas eclipsed her accolades. "She wanted to be absolutely realistic about structures of power and political power that operate in our world that we should not be naïve about," said William Schweiker, a University of Chicago professor and colleague of Elshtain's. "In the terms of political philosophy, she was called a political realist."

But, importantly, she was a political realist of a very specific sort: Christian. An admirer of Augustine, her sense of the fallen world was an early and foundational belief, she wrote in Augustine and the Limits of Politics in 1995. "Having had polio and given birth to my first child at age nineteen, bodies loomed rather large in my scheme of things. ... I was too much a democrat and too aware of the human propensity to sin to believe that humans could create a perfect world of any sort on this fragile globe."

This led her to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a robust theoretical argument about just war. But she was as much concerned with the ethics of mundane, everyday activities as she was with combat.

"She was concerned about the every day, normal, common aspects of human life," Schweiker said. "Most of our lives are lived among communities that are smaller than national political systems: our families, our friends, our universities, our religious communities. These normal, everyday relationships also have to be protected against systems of power -- particularly systems of power that want to remake them."

This was the foundation of her work in bioethics, which included a focus on genetic engineering, the ethics of abortion, and the disabled. As she said in 2001, "We're in real danger of reducing the person to his or her genotype, but if you say that, you're an alarmist -- so that's what I am."

She also wrote extensively on the role that women have played in political history, which was the subject of her first book, Public Man, Private Woman, published in 1981. "Because women have, throughout much of Western history, been a silenced population in the arena of public speech, their views... have either been taken for granted or assigned a lesser order of significance and honor compared to the public, political activities of males," she wrote. She herself was not content to remain a private thinker, however; she broke barriers in the academy, including becoming the first woman to hold an endowed professorship at Vanderbilt University.

But perhaps her greatest legacy of barrier breaking was her serious intellectual commitment to including God in discussions of politics.

"Her joint appointment in political science and the divinity school at [the University of] Chicago was truly unusual," said Erik Owens, a professor at Boston College who worked with Elshtain when she was his dissertation adviser. "Religion was not taken seriously enough as a proper subject of study by political scientists through most of her career, and political science was equally suspect in most divinity schools. She helped to bring these two disciplinary guilds into conversation with one another. This may be one of her greatest legacies as a professional academic."

"I recall to this day how transgressive I felt when I first began teaching Western political thought and assigned Martin Luther's classic essay On the Freedom of the Christian in the same section in which we read Machiavelli's The Prince, insisting, as I did so, that Luther's text was arguably more important over the long run of Western history," she wrote in 2006. "That this was a 'bold move' on my part brings a smile to my face from my perch decades later."

Elshtain was in her element in the classroom. She had a "fidelity to her vocation as a teacher," Schweiker said. "This is a woman who was flying around the country it seemed like constantly -- several times a week, up until near the end. And yet she never missed things for her students, she was always there for classes."

"It seemed that after every conversation I left with pages of notes sketching new ideas or books I should investigate. She was, in short, brilliant and inspirational," said Owens.

These were her final reflections from the preface of Sovereignty: God, State, and Self, the volume that resulted from her Gifford lectures:

One of my persistent worries about our own time is that we may be squandering a good bit of rich heritage through processes of organized 'forgetting,' a climate of opinion that encourages presentism rather than a historical perspective that reminds us that we are always boats moving against the current, 'borne back ceaselessly into the past,' in F. Scott Fitzgerald's memorable words from The Great Gatsby. This historic recognition should not occasion resentment or dour heaviness; rather, it should instill gratitude. As this book drew to a close, I realized that it was no culminating magnum opus -- few books are -- but, rather, a contribution to the shared memory of our time and place. And that is enough.

Nine honorary degrees, 21 books, more than 600 articles and essays, and countless students who will be the next generation of political theorists -- perhaps that was enough.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also oversees the National Channel and writes about religion and culture.

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