God, State, and Self
Jean Bethke Elshtain
Basic Books, $35, 480 pp.
In a 1970 letter to the editor of Commonweal, a graduate student named Jean Bethke Elshtain defended Jesuit priest and social activist Dan Berrigan against what the feminist scholar and theologian Rosemary Ruether had called his problematic “radical personalism.” Elshtain suggested that social criticism required going beyond “structural analysis of the political and economic edifice” to examine the motivations of individuals. “Changes in both behavior (‘inner consciousness’) and institutions must be sought,” she wrote, “because they serve to reinforce one another. One needs structural analysis and the Berrigan sort of radical personalism.”
Such a conclusion may surprise those familiar with Elshtain’s subsequent career, in which she has become a renowned political philosopher with an increasingly neoconservative bent—her recent work has found her closely allied with the Bush administration. In fact, Elshtain’s Gifford Lectures, delivered in 2005–06, and now published under the title Sovereignty: God, State, and Self, remain true to her original, two-pronged approach to social criticism. What has changed in her outlook, however, is an overwhelming prioritization of the wisdom of institutions over the experience of individuals.
Elshtain’s contention in these lectures is that strong notions of divine sovereignty prevalent in the late Middle Ages gave way to problematic modern...