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.

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

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