Jean Bethke Elshtain

Politics, Ethics, and Society

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Debra Erickson, Michael Le Chevallier
Catholic Ideas for a Secular World
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , April
     416 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“What I do is political theory with ethics as the heart of the matter. I decided long ago that one could no more separate the study of politics from ethics than one could hold back the tide.” Jean Bethke Elshtain’s self-reflection from her Sovereignty: God, State, and Self, adapted from her Gifford Lecture, is captured by this collection of essays, Jean Bethke Elshtain: Politics, Ethics, and Society, edited by Debra Erickson and Michael Le Chevallier. The collection is part analysis of Elshtain’s work, part application of her work to new problems, and part critique—but always admiration for her commitment to ethics in the political realm. 

The collection is divided into four sections, each with a sub-introduction which provides an overview of its themes. Given the variety and complexity of the sections, this review will extract a key point or two from each. The first section, titled “The Political Question,” attempts to locate Elshtain both as a political theorist and a feminist; each of which are quite difficult. Elshtain was not a traditional political theorist nor a traditional feminist. By placing family at the center of her political analysis, Elshtain drew upon the Christian tradition, a Burkean form of conservatism, and a form of feminism which highlighted the importance of women (14-16). Saying that she was conservative and feminist requires a reconceptualization of both terms away from their current usage in the twenty-four hour news cycle. Elshtain was not an ideologue, therefore the political baggage of "conservative" and "feminist" must be jettisoned from readings of her work. 

Part 2 is an engagement with Elshtain’s Augustinianism, especially as it relates to the complex interaction of sovereignty, power, and the Christian conception of love. Notable in this section is an essay by Lisa Sowle Cahill. Cahill detects a gap in Elshtain’s thinking: she desires to be Augustinian and Thomistic simultaneously. Though this is not an impossibility in broad terms, in the particulars of political life, the dirty-hands of the Augustinian line (Martin Luther and Reinhold Niebuhr) are difficult to reconcile with the optimistic vision of political life in Aquinas. However, instead of taking this as a critique of Elshtain, it could be said that her Thomistic moments are a softening of the often pessimistic uses of Augustine.

Elshtain’s views on war and the connections between the state and international relations makes up the third section. Just as Cahill had assessed Elshtain’s Augustinianism, Nicholas Reggner critiques her commitment to Christian realism as expressed in her writings. Elshtain’s defense of the Afghan War against Al Qaeda and the Taliban is analyzed by Chris Brown, who suggests that her Just War Against Terror is a rebuke of fellow academics who laid the fault for the 9/11 attacks at the feet of American policy decisions. 

Part 4 is titled “The End(s) of Political Life” and the singular/plural distinction is key to these essays. Elshtain was a committed liberal (equally stripped of its political baggage) who believed that democracy was the best form of governance for pluralistic societies. These papers focus on her work Democracy on Trial but are also the most forward looking. There are applications to the Arab Spring, the interaction of Islam with democracy, and to the ever-deepening political animosities in the West. 

The only flaw with this collection is that there is no sustained engagement with the field of political theology. Elshtain’s works will certainly become part of the canonical readings in political theology, given her attention to problems of sovereignty. It is disappointing that there is only one refence to Carl Schmitt, the controversial "god-father" of modern political theology. Yet it is also the case that an Elshtainian political theology would look quite different from the liberation theologies that dominate the field at the moment. This collection certainly gives anyone seeking to construct such a political theology the framework for further development and is a valuable resource to those studying Elshtain’s thinking or the various fields in which her work has made an impact. Beyond that, anyone who seeks a political theory which can hold the tensions of Christian ethics, liberal democracy, and pluralism together will have a clear introduction to one of the most important thinkers of her generation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Lane is a doctoral candidate in Religion, Ethics, and Philosophy at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
January 31, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Debra Erickson is Instructor in Philosophy at Bloomsburg University.

Michael Le Chevallier is a doctoral candidate in Religious Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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