Jean Bethke Elshtain and Religion: The Scholar Who Would Not Be Constrained (1941-2013) -- Debra Erickson

Debra Erickson

November 14, 2013

Jean Bethke Elshtain was an unusual scholar of religion. Her graduate work was in history, political theory, and international relations; her first book traced portrayals of women in Western political thought. Prior to joining the faculty at the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1995, she had taught in political science departments. Elshtain had not been formally instructed in the “theory and methods in the study of religion,” which many see as foundational for aspiring religious studies scholars. Nevertheless, the wide-ranging field of religious studies was a match for Elshtain's scholarship, unconstrained as it was by narrow disciplinarity. 

Yet Elshtain’s focus remained fixed on political life: on the attempts of human beings to negotiate their shared existence; to create communities and along with them, the potential for human flourishing. Elshtain also steadfastly maintained the conviction that politics could not be separated from ethics, that politics was a moral endeavor, not a purely instrumental one. If there was a shift in her work, it was from an implicit to an explicit expression of her belief that if one was to take human beings seriously, one must take religion seriously. That belief, of course, put her squarely in the religious studies camp.

In talking about religion, Elshtain was not seeking to explain religion as a phenomenon, nor was she arguing for basic religious literacy in the style of Stephen Prothero. Rather, she wanted to understand how things got to be the way they were, where they might be going, and what we ought to do as a result.

Her research drew her to the work of certain thinkers—many of whom were religious thinkers—and she returned to them again and again: Jane Addams, Hannah Arendt, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Albert Camus, Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II), Martin Luther King, Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr, and perhaps most important to her, Augustine. In her estimation, these thinkers grasped something true about the human condition, and communicated it in a way that was open to all with ears to hear.

In the end, Elshtain probably belonged to that company of religious studies scholars known as theologians, but not as a theologian per se: she would not have applied that label to herself. She wrote no systematic theology, nor did she exclusively target the faithful; instead, Elshtain made use of theological categories in non-dogmatic ways. In her view, “A scholar with religious convictions should be clear about when he or she is bearing witness to the faith and urging that witness on others through persuasion…and when, by contrast, religiously derived concepts are being drawn upon for scholarly purposes—for which he or she owes no one an apology.” The latter was her typical mode. Her use of theological concepts hearkened back to a time when talk of God was not taboo, either in the disciplines or in the public square.

Despite its qualified aspect, the theological component of her work was challenging for those who preferred the earlier, more secular Jean Elshtain. It seemed to take her work on gender and war, the two issues on which she had built her scholarly reputation, in a conservative direction, and this effect made adversaries of some of her former allies. Religion also crossed the boundaries of her public and private roles: a lifelong Lutheran, she quietly joined the Roman Catholic Church a scant two years before her death. Here, too, Elsthain’s life highlights tensions in the academy: the distinction between one’s religious commitments and one’s scholarly work may not be as neat as some wish it to be.

But Elshtain never shied away from uncomfortable truths or apparent contradictions. Although she worked from within the Christian tradition, Elshtain defended religious pluralism and affirmed the capacity of all people of good will to live and work together. In the title of what may have been her most theological book, she asked the pointed question, “Who Are We?” In her answer, Elshtain argued that we have forgotten who we are: fallen creatures, limited and dependent. Religious pluralism as fact or value should not mean abandoning the concepts that shaped the modern world, even when those concepts, such the Christian drama of creation, fall, and redemption, come from within a particular religious tradition. Without understanding these foundational ideas, Elshtain held, we cannot know ourselves. And if we get ourselves—that is, human beings—wrong, we will get our politics wrong as well.

Jean Bethke Elshtain died before she had written all she wanted to say. Among other things, she had planned to write a book on ethics and film, a lifelong passion. No doubt her death will spur some to revisit her work, and we may see posthumous publications. But by any measure, Elshtain left a formidable and challenging legacy in a body of work that embraced nearly every dimension of human life, including the religious. However unusual a scholar, she is unlikely to be quickly forgotten.


Elshtain, Jean Bethke. “On Never Reaching the Coast of Utopia.” International Relations 22 no. 2 (2008): 165.
For further reading:

Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Sovereignty: God, State, and Self. New York: Basic Books, 2008.

----Democracy on Trial. New York: Basic Books, 2005.

----Who Are We? Critical Reflections and Hopeful Possibilities. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

----Augustine and the Limits of Politics. South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995.
Recent commentaries on Elshtain’s scholarly legacy:

M. Christian Green, “Androgyny or Antigone: Jean Bethke Elshtain’s Feminism.” Capital Commentary, October 25, 2013.

Marc LiVecche, “Evil and the Politics of Hope.” Capital Commentary, September 25, 2013.

Lubomir Martin Ondrasek, “Jean Bethke Elshtain, Václav Havel, and the Ethics of Responsibility.” Capital Commentary, October 4, 2013.
From 2010-2013, the Divinity School hosted a series of four conferences discussing themes in Elshtain’s work (sponsored by the McDonald Agape Foundation) under the title: “Jean Bethke Elshtain: The Engaged Mind.” The published proceedings are forthcoming.

Photo Credit: Dan Dry / University of Chicago Magazine

051A84728be4b6.jpgAuthor, Debra Erickson, (Ph.D. 2010 in Religious Ethics, UChicago Divinity School) is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Siena College. Her dissertation advisor was Prof. Jean Bethke Elshtain. Erickson's research focuses on case-based ethical reasoning in environmental decision-making. For three years, she edited the Religion and Culture Web Forum, published by the Marty Center.

ac_110325_151102_1489c9b397c70eff40990f.Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center. 

Debra Erickson