Posted by: gcarkner | February 14, 2013

Jean Bethke Elshtain: a Unique Contributor

Top Christian  Political Theorist

Jean Bethke ElshtainShe is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and is a contributing editor for The New Republic. She is, in addition, newly the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Chair in the Foundations of American Freedom at Georgetown University. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and she has served on the Boards of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and the National Humanities Center. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and has received nine honorary degrees. In 2002, Elshtain received the Frank J. Goodnow award, the highest award for distinguished service to the profession given by the American Political Science Association.

The focus of Elshtain’s work is an exploration of the relationship between politics and ethics. Much of her work is concerned with the parallel development of male and female gender roles as they pertain to public and private social participation. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks she has been one of the more visible academic supporters of U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq.

She has published over five hundred essays and authored and/or edited over twenty books, including Democracy on TrialJust War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World, Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy, Augustine and the Limits of Politics, and Sovereignty: God, State, Self.

One of her last discussions Under God: the role of religion in public life.

In 2006, she was appointed by President George W. Bush to the Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and also delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, joining such previous Gifford Lecturers as William JamesHannah ArendtKarl Barth, and Reinhold Niebuhr. In 2008, Elshtain received a second presidential appointment to the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Over the course of the last thirty-five years, Elshtain has contributed to national debates on the family, the roles of men and women, the state of American Democracy, and International relations.

Analysis of Major Works

Elshtain’s importance to the United States stems both from her impact in political ethics, and also her position in society as a woman. Carlin Romano, author of America the Philosophical, explains in his work that Elshtain’s aim “was not so much to lobby for specific policies as to push for good civic-minded individualism over against the egoism of “bad individualism”.

One of her more popular titles, Women and War, Elshtain examines women’s roles in war as contrasted against masculine roles and why these concepts are important to society. The work finally draws conclusions by what Elshtain comments is the proper approach to any topic: remaining open during discussion and trying not to impose one’s own preconceived thoughts on the subject, allowing one to get the most truth out of it. Beginning by examining America’s societal interpretations of gender roles during wartime (man as a brave fighter and woman as a pacifist), Elshtain argues that men may make poor civic soldiers due to the fact that they are predisposed to a dangerous kind of eager adolescence on the battlefield, while women may be enthusiastically patriotic and possess a kind of necessary maturity, which is vital to successful combat.

One of Elshtain’s more famous works, Democracy on Trial, demonstrates her quality of objective relevance to society by reflecting on democracy in America. In this work, Elshtain discusses how socio-cultural insistencies on ‘difference’ or  ‘separatism’  have evolved since the ratification of the Constitution, and how it may be detrimental to our own system. Elshtain does not deny the importance of difference, especially within a civic body. Rather, she recognizes that Americans are no longer acting as representative bodies in our governments, which embrace separate interests and also work as a collective towards the betterment of the whole. Elshtain, like James Madison, explains that American factional hostility is only a detriment to our society: “one makes war with enemies: one does politics – democratic politics – with opponents,” Notice the distinction Elshtain makes by using the word ‘opponents,’ implying that human beings will always run into differences of opinion with each other, but that does not require that we put ourselves against each other for trivial matters.


  • Sovereignty: God, State, Self (2008)
  • Just War against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World (2003)
  • Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy (2002)
  • Who Are We? Critical Reflections and Hopeful Possibilities. Politics and Ethical Discourse (2000)
  • New Wine in Old Bottles: International Politics and Ethical Discourse (1998)
  • Real Politics: Political Theory and Everyday Life (1997)
  • Augustine and the Limits of Politics (1996)
  • Democracy on Trial (1993)
  • Just War Theory (1991)
  • Power Trips and Other Journeys (1990)
  • Women and War (1987)
  • Meditations on Modern Political Thought (1986)
  • Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought (1981)


  • “The Self: Reborn, Undone, Transformed”. TELOS 44 (Summer 1980). New York: Telos Press

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