Jean Bethke Elshtain, 1941-2013


elshtainThe Witherspoon Institute mourns the passing of our friend Jean Bethke Elshtain. She was the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago and the Thomas and Dorothy Leavy Chair in the Foundations of American Freedom at Georgetown University. Jean was a Senior Fellow of the Witherspoon Institute and a member of the Editorial Board of Public Discourse, our online journal. She was 72.

Jean was a scholar of extraordinary professional accomplishment. She was the author or co-author of over twenty books and more than four hundred articles in ethics and political theory. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Jean was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. She also served as a board member for the Institute for Advanced Study and the National Humanities Center. Over the course of her life, Jean was awarded nine honorary doctorates. In 2002, she received the highest honor given by the American Political Science Association for distinguished service to her professional field: the Frank J. Goodnow Award.

But these accomplishments, Robert P. George observes today on Public Discourse,

“tell only the smallest part of Jean’s story . . . She was a daughter of the west—born and bred in Colorado. She did not enter the world with a silver spoon in her mouth, nor was she given a gilt-edged education. She was among the last cohort of Americans to be struck by polio. She limped throughout her life, but never complained of her affliction or let it slow her down. She was a dedicated teacher, a highly productive scholar, a much-sought-after public speaker—and a devoted wife, mother, and grandmother.”

Jean’s perseverance in the defense of the institutions of civil society and limited government was matched by her commitment to the traditional, marriage-based family as the fundamental unit of society. Throughout her distinguished career in the American academy, in her many deep friendships, and in her religious journey from Lutheranism to Roman Catholicism, these two truths were cultivated and articulated in the face of the philosophical misconceptions and political challenges of the last four decades. Jean’s courage, integrity and witness will be remembered by the Institute as we continue to pursue the mission we joyfully shared with her.

Remembering Jean Bethke Elshtain:

Robert P. George reflects on her friendship, thought and legacy at Public Discourse.

The University of Chicago commemorates her passing.

The University of Chicago Divinity School prepares for an October conference that will celebrate her life and work.