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A Christian Realist, par Excellence

Jean Bethke Elshtain, 1941-2013

Aug 26, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 47 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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Jean Bethke Elshtain may have been the busiest woman many of us had ever met. Shuttling back and forth between her regular teaching appointment at the University of Chicago and her settled home in Tennessee, she wrote and wrote—and wrote and wrote. Essays, talks, books, memos to fellow directors on the almost endless number of boards on which she served. Letters, emailed comments about her friends’ latest work, notes on current theological and political issues: a ceaseless flow of words.

Jean Bethke Elshtain

Jean Bethke Elshtain

Along the way—and what a way, producing 21 books and more than 600 journal articles in her fields of theology and political theory—she helped bring up her grandchildren and planned her courses and delivered lectures everywhere from a visiting professorship at Baylor to the famous Gifford Lectures in Scotland. When she slipped away on Sunday, August 11, dying of congestive heart failure at age 72, American public life lost what had seemed almost a force of nature. And nearly everyone who knew her lost a friend.

In many ways, Jean’s life was defined by the polio she had while young and the child she bore at age 19. From the beginning, she had experienced the world as a deeply physical place, and it showed in her first, curiously both feminist and conservative book after graduate school, Public Man, Private Woman, in 1981. 

But what made her most interesting as a thinker was the conclusion she drew from it all, particularly in her breakthrough books Women and War in 1987 and Augustine and the Limits of Politics in 1996. Her recognition of the physical nature of the world gave her the intellectual resources to reject all notions of earthly perfection, and she became a Christian realist of a profoundly Augustinian kind—perhaps America’s most prominent Christian realist since Reinhold Niebuhr. 

Her realism was a key part of her teaching, manifest in her joint appointment in the political science department and the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. And it guided her 2003 Just War Against Terror, a book that was, to her hurt and surprise, brutally and often unfairly attacked by her fellow academics in the context of the agitation over the Iraq war. Her writings for this magazine on Louisa May Alcott and the Puritans show the same hard-headed refusal to warp actual history or the world as it is experienced to match an idealistic, utopian thesis. 

Jean had a bit of contrarianism built into her nature, and she delighted in assigning John Calvin to her political-theory students and Machiavelli to her divinity students. She enjoyed, for that matter, sounding like a conservative while talking to liberals, and a liberal while talking to conservatives. In an age dominated by idealism, she once told me, she would have been a cynic—while in an age dominated by cynicism, she would have been an idealist. But in our own age, which she saw as somehow both deeply idealistic and utterly cynical, she looked to a realistic account of the fragility of the body, the weakness of human nature, and the difficulty of the political order as the best description of this hard world as we actually find it.

She once instructed me on that point while playing with my toddler daughter on her lap—the little girl’s delighted laughter tending to undermine the grim message. But then, as I also remember, the play that so made my daughter laugh was Jean’s opening and closing the folding cane that her childhood polio had left her needing as an adult.

And perhaps that was the real message. Jean never denied that the world offers bright moments. We know them as bright, however, because they occur in a physical and moral landscape that nothing short of the end time can fully redeem. She understood the Augustinian truth that all attempts at human perfection fail to grasp—for every supposed utopia, she knew, would eventually issue in its own deadly night, murdering to keep its false light burning.

Her suspicion of grand political programs is part of what kept her focused on the particular throughout her life—a particularity found, for instance, in her 2002 book Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy. This is why, in the end, Jean Bethke Elshtain may be best remembered for her friendships and the personal suasion she brought to her ideas. 

Brought up a Lutheran, she converted to Catholicism in 2011, and she died in the fullness of her Christian faith. It was an admirable, serious life she led: both happy and important. That is as much as anyone can ask in this world she knew was a fallen one. A good deal more, in fact, than anyone can ask. 

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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