She Stood for the Quotidian: Jean Bethke Elshtain (1941 – 2013)

Jean Bethke Elshtain was, for eighteen years, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics in the Divinity School, with appointments in Political Science and the Committee on International Relations, at the University of Chicago. Among her professional achievements, she held 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 held the Maguire Chair of Ethics and the Kluge Chair in Modern Culture at the Library of Congress, appointments at Harvard, Georgetown, and Baylor, and a seat on the President’s Council for Bioethics under George W. Bush.

In 2002, she was awarded the Goodnow Award, the highest honor bestowed by the American Political Science Association, in 2006 she delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, and in 2011 she received the Democracy Service Award given by the National Endowment for Democracy. The latter two honors put Elshtain in the company of such giants as previous Gifford lecturers Karl Barth, Hannah Arendt, Henry James, and Reinhold Niebuhr, and of previous Democracy Service Award honorees including the Dalai Lama, Lech Walesa, and Vaclav Havel. Naturally, of course, and to my mind the better deal, it grants them a place in her company as well.

A prolific writer and speaker, Elshtain delivered hundreds of lectures 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, Augustine and the Limits of Politics, Just War Against Terror, and Sovereignty: God, State, and Self.

But these are merely her accolades. Jean Bethke Elshtain’s true professional measure is taken elsewhere, perhaps, if I might suggest, in this: she worked where life was lived.

I remember with great appreciation our first meeting together. We talked about my scholarly interests in coming to the University of Chicago, the direction of my doctoral work, expectations for my course of study and the like. As we finished, she leaned forward and asked, “But why ethics? What’s really behind all this?” I’m sure I thought about giving some well-articulated, intellectual answer that ground my interest in the study of ethics in some one or the other of the great philosophical preoccupations. Instead, I shrugged to myself, and figured the most honest answer 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. She took them into her hands, considered them, mumbled something about “munchkins,” and then reached into her own bag. She plopped on the table before me pictures of her grandchildren: JoAnn, Christopher, Christiane, and Bobby. She smiled at them and then at me and said, “We’ll get along just fine.”

Over the last few days, it is the office visits with Elshtain that my cohort and I most joyfully recall. It is there, sometimes with our children bouncing on her knee or sitting alongside us coloring with the crayons she always had in supply, that she taught us what it meant to care about the first things in life. She demonstrated the importance of serving nation and neighbor, in both scholarly and popular venues, in part by demonstrating the limitations of serving only one or the other. She argued that in order for the common good to flourish we had to focus our energies not just on the government or the individual but also on all the thick stuff gobbed in between them, including, most fundamentally, faith and family. The free society requires, and assumes, the critical role of such morally formative institutions to build and sustain the habits necessary for the prospering of the free society itself. Among those habits is the ability to sustain real dialogue.

Like one of her several heroes, Albert Camus, Elshtain refused to change anything she thought or to attempt to change anything you thought simply in order to reach an agreeable reconciliation. Believing instead that falsehood is the opposite of dialogue, and that real disagreement is a hard won victory accessible only through an honest meeting of minds, she gave it to you straight and demonstrated the refreshing value of frankness-with-charity and invective-against-twaddle. This led to her belief that what the world most needed from Christians was, in Camus’ terms, “Christians who remain Christians.” For Elshtain this meant that Christians have to speak out loudly and clearly, in witness to their normative grounding, against evil in the world, never leaving the world in doubt that we stand against those bloodstained regimes that put the innocent to torture. She bore none of the utopian sentimentalism that believed we could end evil in history but neither did she give in to cynicism by refusing to believe we might end some evils and diminish others.

No matter what the central topic of an office visit, she never, not once, failed to ask about my family. She made sure I remembered to take the afternoons and weekends away from the books and to spend them instead in the company of my children. She regularly inquired after the welfare of my wife and once reminded me that it was the Spartan women who kept the nation strong. Her mind seemed at times to be all knowing and, as a dear friend and colleague of hers commented, there was hardly ever a time you left her presence without having learned something new – and something worth knowing. Her intellect could ride the heights of intellectual theory and yet she remained grounded in those everyday concerns in which ideas run into reality. You cannot talk to someone about Elshtain without them recalling her concern for everyday things. She insisted that we stayed attuned to the now-and-not-yet, preoccupied by the ambiguities, responsibilities, limits, and joys that characterize this time between times.

At the University of Chicago it is a commonplace for professors to insist they have no intention of making disciples of their students. Elshtain would insist this is only proper: for a part of our moral, and mortal life, she would say, is the gathering together of a coherent self. But I fear that in this, in some ways, she has failed those of us in her cohort. I know I speak for my colleagues when I share my desire, with all humility, that my future students see Jean in me. I hope they let me bounce their kids on my knee and tell me about their wives and husbands even as we discuss Augustine or Thomas or Winnie-the-Pooh or Ramsey or just war or John Ford or civil society or Narnia. I hope—I know we all do—that our students know the names of our grandkids. And if this makes us her disciples than that is what we are.