Democracy on Trial: Religion, Civil Society, and Democratic Theory

The second of four conferences in the series “The Engaged Mind,” reflecting on themes drawn from the work of Jean Bethke Elshtain. The series is underwritten by the McDonald Agape Foundation.

October 13-14, 2011 
3rd Floor Lecture Hall 
Divinity School 
University of Chicago

Series Overview | Schedule | Past Conference

Conference Overview

What is the state of our democracy? Is democracy good for the world? How does religion support or hinder democratic practice? Throughout her career, Jean Bethke Elshtain has challenged both liberal and conservative approaches to politics, emphasizing the crucial role that the mediating institutions of civil society play in a successful democracy. She has identified the forces that oppose democracy: identity politics, utopianism, and an elitism that denies ordinary people the prerogatives of citizenship. Yet she has consistently maintained a realism tinged with hope, pointing to Jane Addams as an exemplar of lived democratic practice. 

In this second conference addressing themes from Professor Elshtain’s body of work, senior scholars, public intellectuals, and public figures from across the disciplines will gather to explore and debate these pressing questions through the lens of their own expertise. As major thinkers in their own right, they will present new work on the topics under consideration, bringing considerable rigor and a range of viewpoints to the table. Through both panel presentations and structured conversation, the conference is designed to create opportunities for new ideas to emerge, ensuring a unique event for participants and attendees alike. Professor Elshtain will be present throughout the conference to query and respond to the speakers’ commentary.

The conference will include the presentation of The National Endowment for Democracy's Democracy Service Medal to Dr. Elshtain. The presentation will be on Thursday, October 13th, at 5:30 p.m. The Board of Directors of the National Endowment for Democracy created its Democracy Service Medal to recognize individuals who have made significant contributions to the progress of democracy around the world.The Medal Presentation will be made by NED President Carl Gershman and will also include tributes by Dr. Francis Fukuyama and Martin Paloush, former Ambassador of the Czech Republic to the US and the United Nations.

Confirmed participants: 

Keynote Speaker: Nicholas Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology Emeritus, Yale University, and Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia

  • Peter Berkowitz, Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University
  • Patrick Deneen, Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Chair and Director, Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy, Georgetown University  
  • Francis Fukuyama, Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute, Stanford University
  • Carl Gershman, President, National Endowment for Democracy
  • Ruth Grant, Professor of Political Science and Philosophy and Senior Fellow, Kenan Institute for Ethics, Duke University
  • Nancy Hirschmann, R. Jean Brownlee Endowed Term Professor, University of Pennsylvania
  • Linda McClain, Paul M. Siskind Research Scholar and Professor of Law, Boston University School of Law
  • Martin Palous, Czech Diplomat, former Ambassador to the United States and the United Nations
  • Peter Steinfels, University Professor and Co-Director, Fordham University Center on Religion and Culture
  • Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, Journalist-in-Residence and Co-Director, Fordham University Center on Religion and Culture

For more information, contact the conference coordinator, Debra Erickson, at

To register, please send your name, institutional affiliation (if any) and preferred e-mail address Pre-registration is not required.