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Remembering Jean Bethke Elshtain

We begin to understand people when we know their heroes. Jean Bethke Elshtain’s intellectual hero was St. Augustine; her political hero was Vaclav Havel. From Augustine she learned that evil is a real and active force in human affairs and that it is our duty to oppose it as best we can. From Havel she learned the power of bearing intransigent witness to truth and the importance of treating one’s adversaries with restraint and magnanimity.

Eshtain, who passed away on August 11, was no stranger to controversy. She never exactly sought it out, but she never shrank from it either. She was a feminist who criticized her feminist comrades for what she saw as their indifference or hostility to family life and a progressive who criticized fellow progressives when she feared that their passion for individual rights threatened to overwhelm solidarity and community. Although we were long-time friends and occasional colleagues (on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy, among others), she was never shy about pointing out where she thought I had gone astray.

Jean Elshtain was never afraid to be unfashionable. In an intellectual world dominated by agnosticism and secularism, she was proudly religious—“Lutheran leaning toward Catholic,” as she once described it. Although she taught the classics of religious thought, religion for her was much more than an object of study. It was primarily a source of wisdom about human affairs and of guidance through metaphysical and moral confusion.

It was in the aftermath of 9/11 that Elshtain reached her peak of public visibility—some would say notoriety. She defended not only the immediate U.S. response toward Afghanistan, as most did, but also the Bush administration’s decision to attack Iraq. She viewed that decision through the prism of Augustine’s just war theory, as a defense of vulnerable innocents against an evil tyrant. As did many others, I disagreed. But even when I questioned the good faith of some policymakers, I never doubted hers. More, she made me and others think again about the cost of tolerating eradicable evil, even when the cost of ending it is prohibitive.

Jean Elshtain’s greatest passion was democracy, which she regarded as the only decent way for people to live together despite their differences. Although she had deeply-held principles, she recognized that others had conflicting principles they embraced with equal conviction. That is why, paradoxically, she could offer a principled defense of compromise, not just as a modus vivendi, but as an ideal. Compromise, she once wrote, “can be a way in which we make pledges to one another.” And more than that, she argued, it is a “democratic way to do politics.” This principled realism is only one of the many reasons we should mourn an important voice stilled too soon.

Below, a selection of Elshtain's writing for The New Republic.

"The New Porn Wars" June 25, 1984

"Battered Reason: The New Feminist Jurisprudence" October 5, 1992

"Suffer the Little Children" March 4, 1996

"Authority Figures:Tocqueville and the question of authority" December 22, 1997

"The Right Rights: On the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" June 15, 1998