Jean Bethke Elshtain, one of the nation’s most prominent and provocative thinkers on religion, political philosophy, and ethics, died Sunday following a major cardiac incident earlier this summer. She was 72.
Elshtain was the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics in the Divinity School, Political Science, and the Committee on International Relations at the University of Chicago.
An agile and extraordinarily prolific scholar, Elshtain’s work touched on issues ranging from terrorism to bioethics to feminism. She also lectured across the world on these topics in an effort to bring the work of the academy to a wider public.
“Jean Bethke Elshtain was a formidable intellectual presence in the academy and in American public life,” said Margaret M. Mitchell, the Shailer M. Mathews Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and dean of the Divinity School. “Her arrival at the Divinity School in 1995 came on the heels of the publication of Democracy on Trial, which was and remains a major statement of the crucial dimension of morality in American public discourse. We in the Divinity School and the University will miss Jean greatly.”
Elshtain’s work was characterized by a combination of “hard-nosed realism and a very humane heart,” said her close friend and colleague William Schweiker, the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics in the Divinity School.
“She was suspicious of regimes of power, and she was always concerned with political and social systems that wanted to remake human life without respect for our finitude,” Schweiker said. “She was very attuned to the needs and goods of everyday life, and through her work she always fought on behalf of these mundane, quotidian interests.”
Schweiker said many of these themes came together in Elshtain’s work on sovereignty, which was the topic of her 2005-2006 Gifford Lectures, “Sovereign God, Sovereign State, Sovereign Self.”
Elshtain was the author of many other influential works, including Women and War, an exploration of the traditional status of women as noncombatants; Augustine and the Limits of Politics, which applies Augustinian thought to contemporary politics and society; and Just War Against Terror, which made a vigorous and widely discussed moral argument for greater American military engagement abroad.
She is also the author of Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought; Meditations on Modern Political Thought; Democracy on Trial; Real Politics: At the Center of Everyday Life; Who are We? Critical Reflections, Hopeful Possibilities; and Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy.
Although Elshtain’s colleagues did not always share her views, she remained a trusted interlocutor whose challenging questions always helped to strengthen their work, according to Prof. Martin Marty.
“She loved to provoke and, through provocations, to stimulate conversation, argument and opportunities to learn,” said Marty, the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Divinity School. “No doubt many commentators on her work will spend their energies discussing her from what are called ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ stances. But to reduce her to categories of partisanship or ideology, would be to miss the scholar.
“I recall the real Jean: friendly, buoyant, tireless, inquisitive, and faithful (and faith-full) in respect to family, the republic, and the vocation of teaching and learning.”
Elshtain was born in Windsor, Colo., on Jan. 6, 1941. As a teenager, she was stricken with polio, but never let her physical challenges stop her. “She was truly ‘abled’ as she made the rounds of conferences, lectureships and any setting, including a coffee shop, where original ideas were honored,” Marty said.
Despite her ambitious lecture schedule and commitment to her research, Elshtain never neglected her students or her teaching duties, according to Prof. Stephen Meredith, who co-taught several courses with Elshtain and remembered her “broad and imaginative” approach to her work.
“She was a brilliant teacher who seemed to know everything about everything,” said Meredith, Professor in Pathology, Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and the College, and associate faculty in the Divinity School. “She cannot be replaced.”
Elshtain was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Guggenheim Fellow and fellow at the Bellagio Center of the Rockefeller Foundation; holder of the Maguire Chair in Ethics at the Library of Congress; and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where she also served on the board of trustees. She was a Phi Beta Kappa Lecturer, and in 2002, she received the Goodnow Award, the highest award bestowed by the American Political Science Association for distinguished service to the profession. She served on the boards of the National Humanities Center and the National Endowment for Democracy, and was a member of the Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Scholars Council of the Library of Congress.
Elshtain is survived by her husband Errol; her four children, Sheri, Heidi, Jenny and Eric; and her grandchildren, JoAnn Paulette Welch, Robert Paul Bethke, Christopher Matthew Welch and Christiane Lind Elshtain.
Elshtain’s work was the subject of a four-part conference series at the Divinity School, “The Engaged Mind,” which began in 2010. The final conference will take place Oct. 17-18 and will provide an opportunity for the UChicago community to come together in celebration of Elshtain’s life and work.
A memorial service will be held on Thursday, October 17th, at 4:30 pm in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. A reception will follow in Swift Hall.