Jean Bethke Elshtain, the Laura Spellman Rockefeller professor at the University of Chicago, died yesterday at the age of 72. Although close friends knew she had been ill, the news came as a surprise and shock to her wider circle of admirers.
I only got to meet Elshtain once, quite a long time ago now, and I didn’t like her conference paper at the time. But I subsequently saw her speak on a few more occasions, as well as taking in some of her articles, and slowly started to see what others saw. Here was someone who was always thinking through her first principles, and in doing so you could perceive her zig-zag movement toward the right. Although she never quite fit neatly into any of the specific cubbies of conservative intellectuals, it is still worth noting someone who went from writing in The Nation to supporting, more recently, both the Iraq and Afghan wars on old-fashioned grounds of Christian just war theory.
Emma Green remembers Elshtain today over at The Atlantic website:
But perhaps her greatest legacy of barrier breaking was her serious intellectual commitment to including God in discussions of politics.
“Her joint appointment in political science and the divinity school at [the University of] Chicago was truly unusual,” said Erik Owens, a professor at Boston College who worked with Elshtain when she was his dissertation adviser. “Religion was not taken seriously enough as a proper subject of study by political scientists through most of her career, and political science was equally suspect in most divinity schools. She helped to bring these two disciplinary guilds into conversation with one another. This may be one of her greatest legacies as a professional academic.”
“I recall to this day how transgressive I felt when I first began teaching Western political thought and assigned Martin Luther’s classic essay On the Freedom of the Christian in the same section in which we read Machiavelli’s The Prince, insisting, as I did so, that Luther’s text was arguably more important over the long run of Western history,” she wrote in 2006. “That this was a ‘bold move’ on my part brings a smile to my face from my perch decades later.”