“Jean Bethke Elshtain, a Political Scientist Unafraid to Talk God, Has Died”

14 Aug

From Emma Green in the Atlantic (excerpt):

“Public intellectuals, much of the time at least, should be party poopers,” Jean Bethke Elshtain declared in 2001. Elshtain, who died Sunday at age 72, formally spent her last 18 years at the University of Chicago Divinity School, but throughout her career, she also held appointments at other universities such as Harvard and Yale; fellowships, including the Guggenheim; and a seat on the now-defunct President’s Council on Bioethics.

“What I do is political theory with ethics as the heart of the matter,” she wrote in 2006 as she prepared to give the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh. Being chosen to give these lectures is one of the highest achievements a moral philosopher, theologian, or political theorist can claim; Elshtain took her place beside Hannah Arendt, William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, John Dewey, Iris Murdoch, and other intellectual giants.

As befits a political theorist, Elshtain’s ideas eclipsed her accolades. “She wanted to be absolutely realistic about structures of power and political power that operate in our world that we should not be naïve about,” said William Schweiker, a University of Chicago professor and colleague of Elshtain’s. “In the terms of political philosophy, she was called a political realist.”

But, importantly, she was a political realist of a very specific sort: Christian. An admirer of Augustine, her sense of the fallen world was an early and foundational belief, she wrote in Augustineand the Limits of Politics in 1995. “Having had polio and given birth to my first child at age nineteen, bodies loomed rather large in my scheme of things. … I was too much a democrat and too aware of the human propensity to sin to believe that humans could create a perfect world of any sort on this fragile globe.”

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