Jean Bethke Elshtain: Gifted Thinker and Courageous Woman

 
 

Jean Bethke Elshtain, our editorial board member and Witherspoon Institute Senior Fellow, fearlessly pursued truth irrespective of the prevailing orthodoxies in the academy and the broader intellectual world.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

My beloved friend Jean Bethke Elshtain has died.

Jean was the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago. By the end of her life, she had compiled an extraordinary resume of academic achievements and honors: She was the author of important books and articles in ethics and political theory. She was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh and was the holder of nine honorary doctorates. She was a member of the boards of the Institute for Advanced Study and the National Humanities Center. She received the highest honor given by the American Political Science Association for distinguished service to her professional field: the Frank J. Goodnow Award.

These achievements and honors tell only the smallest part of Jean’s story, however. She was a daughter of the west—born and bred in Colorado. She did not enter the world with a silver spoon in her mouth, nor was she given a gilt-edged education. She was among the last cohort of Americans to be struck by polio. She limped throughout her life, but never complained of her affliction or let it slow her down. She was a dedicated teacher, a highly productive scholar, a much-sought-after public speaker—and a devoted wife, mother, and grandmother.

And she was courageous—standing up for what she believed was right, quite irrespective of the prevailing orthodoxies in the academy and the broader intellectual world.

In the 1960s, 1970s, and into the 1980s, her views qualified her as a moderate feminist and a moderate liberal. She was a contributing editor for The New Republic and sometimes even wrote for The Nation. But as the political culture changed (and as she herself changed in some significant ways), she began to be perceived—and indeed, to understand herself—as something of a conservative. There were two main reasons for this. The first was her belief in the critical importance of flourishing institutions of civil society, beginning with the marriage-based family and faith-based associations and organizations of many different descriptions. The second was her unapologetic patriotism.

Jean’s commitment to the cause of civil society—and to limitations on government power for the sake of protecting the integrity and preserving the authority of families, churches, and the like—led her to accept election as chairman of the board of the Institute for American Values and to serve in many other significant roles in intellectual and civic life. She was, for example, a member of the editorial advisory board of First Things magazine, the President’s Council on Bioethics, and the Advisory Council of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.

Jean and I worked together in all of these initiatives and more. In 2006, in the wake of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s edict redefining marriage by eliminating the norms of sexual complementarity and consummation, we co-edited the book The Meaning of Marriage, a volume of essays by distinguished scholars from philosophy, sociology, economics, law, history, and other disciplines making the case for marriage as a male-female, child-oriented bond.

Jean’s patriotism led her to the academic “heresy” of supporting—quite publicly and vocally—President George W. Bush and the war on terrorism. Among her intellectual and religious interests was “just war theory.” This was an area in which she and I did not see eye to eye on every point, something I always explained by reference to her Lutheranism and my Catholicism. Our common ground, of course, was St. Augustine, who was in almost all areas a touchstone of her thinking.

Late in her life, Jean “pulled the trigger” on a decision she had been contemplating for many years: she followed the path of her great Lutheran friend Richard John Neuhaus into full communion with the Catholic Church. Like Fr. Neuhaus, she believed that Lutheranism had accomplished its mission of reforming the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” There was, in her view, as in his, no longer a need or a justification to remain a Protestant. So she was received into the Catholic Church by another of her dear friends—a fellow polio victim—Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. Present at the service as a witness was yet another of her dearest friends, Professor Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School—someone she always referred to as “my sister in solidarity.”

Of course, the larger “sisterhood” of 1970s feminists and “gender studies” types (and the Left more generally) had disowned Jean long before her conversion to Catholicism—which did nothing but please her. She refused to go along with abortion, sexual “liberation,” redefining marriage, or many of their other causes. The contemporary writer on women and femininity whom she most admired was . . . Pope John Paul II. She made it a point to include his writings on the syllabus whenever questions of gender were addressed in her courses. Readers can easily imagine how many friends that made her in the Gender Studies department.

I was blessed to get to see my great friend one last time a few months before her death. She came to Princeton at my invitation to lecture in the James Madison Program. A glance revealed that she was frail and failing. Indeed, she ended up in the hospital suffering from dehydration before her visit was over. At the time, I wondered whether it would be our last time together, at least in this life. Alas, it turned out to be just that.

Jean’s fellow believers can commend our dear sister to the Lord in a spirit of hope and even confidence. She was first and foremost His faithful servant. Like St. Paul, to whom, like all Lutherans, she was devoted, she “fought the good fight, and finished the race.”

Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University and Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School. He serves as chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Liberty.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

 

 

 

Web Briefings


PD logo

Want more great articles?

Sign up for daily or weekly emails!

subscribe button