April 21 2024

Jean Bethke Elshtain (1941–2013) and the Chastened Lives of Public Scholars

by Erik Owens, Boston College

The distinguished University of Chicago professor Jean Bethke Elshtain died in August at the age of 72, leaving behind a massive body of published work: hundreds of scholarly articles and chapters, many authored and edited books, countless opinion pieces, reflections, op-eds and interviews. She won dozens of awards and received prestigious honors from institutions and governments around the world. She broke barriers as an accomplished female professor and as a Christian political philosopher. She was a remarkable woman, as a wide array of obituary encomiums have affirmed in recent weeks.* I had the privilege of knowing her personally and professionally over some intense and exhilarating years as her graduate student in the religious ethics program at the Divinity School, and we remained in frequent contact in the years after.

Jean was an influential voice in the academy and in the wider public who will rightly be remembered for the content of her arguments. She is known foremost as a Christian Realist, an Augustinian thinker who chastened the overreaching ambitions of human pride yet nevertheless pushed for action on behalf of justice in an imperfect world. She was a strong advocate for the U.S. invasion of Iraq on humanitarian and security grounds, a position that put her at odds with many fellow moral and political philosophers who felt the just war tradition (not to mention pacifism and political realism) pointed to the opposite conclusion. She defended broad protections for religious freedom at home and abroad, and she championed an expansive understanding of civil society as a bulwark against tyranny and a base for social cohesion. She took strong positions against same-sex marriage and abortion. As one would expect, she had many intellectual detractors as well as supporters.

Her greatest legacy, in my mind, is the model of public scholarship that she offered to me and to generations of other students and colleagues. Public scholars are a subset of public intellectuals, who may or may not have the academic credentials or commitments that professors are required to obtain and sustain. A public scholar is a professional academic who sees her teaching, research and writing as acts of civic education and engagement. Public scholars like Jean Elshtain take up issues that they believe matter to our lives today; historical theology or ancient political theory or whatever other area they enter are fields of inquiry for present use, not merely for the creation of more accurate pictures of the past. The scholarly part of public scholarship is not to be overlooked—public scholars should not be mere pundits with talking points—but neither should the public part, for cloistered ideas and arguments too frequently fail to impact our common life in society. As a result public scholars frequently cross the artificial intellectual boundaries, patrolled by academic disciplines, subdisciplines and guilds, that most people outside the academy do not see.

Jean knew very well that a life of public scholarship leaves one open to criticism from many angles. Public scholars are sometimes criticized by other scholars who see their work as too popular or lightweight without the scholarly apparatus of footnotes and jargon attached for heft. They are criticized by those who say they have fallen away from the narrowly focused scholarship that made their name within a discipline or guild. (I vividly recall a young graduate student colleague in the Divinity School who criticized Jean Elshtain’s recent—meaning the late 1990s—work as being “wide but thin,” as if the student had the requisite breadth and depth to make that judgment.) Public scholars are also sometimes criticized by members of the public they are trying to reach for being too “academic,” too intellectual or too theorized. And of course, they are criticized loudly and persistently by those who simply disagree with their published arguments. Jean once showed me her thick manila folder of virulent hate mail, a collection I can only imagine grew considerably with the rise of anonymous online comments and her publicly available email address.

Jean used to like to say that grand human ambitions ought properly to be chastened by knowledge of our limits as human creatures. She would agree, I think, that public scholars put themselves up for a special sort of chastening, a humbling process that can be both prolonged and highly visible. But she was committed to public scholarship as a way of living a life of purpose, of constant reflection on our shared responsibilities as citizens of both the earthly and the heavenly city. The academy and the broader society would be well-served if more of us embraced the ethic of the public scholar at some point in our careers. We will surely come to disagree, deeply, with one another and with Jean; but as she knew all too well, sometimes that itself is a positive step toward recognizing our shared fate in this world. 

*Commentary on the passing of Professor Elshtain:

Jean Bethke Elshtain, scholar of religion and political philosophy, 1941-2013 by Susie Allen
University of Chicago News

Jean Bethke Elshtain, a Political Scientist Unafraid to Talk God, Has Died by Emma Green
The Atlantic

Jean Bethke Elshtain, a Guiding Light for Policy Makers After 9/11, Dies at 72 by Paul Vitello
The New York Times

Jean Bethke Elshtain: In Memoriam by Charles Mathewes
Political Theology Today

Remembering Jean Bethke Elshtain by Michael Sean Winters
National Catholic Reporter


Erik Owens

Erik Owens is associate director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and adjunct assistant professor of theology and international studies at Boston College. A member of the AAR’s Committee on the Public Understanding of Religion, he is also co-chair of the AAR’s Religion and Politics section and a steering committee member of the Religion and Public Schools: International Perspectives group. He has written on issues of civic and religious education, religion and foreign policy, sovereignty, war, capital punishment and gambling.