Last evening, from Matthew Boudway’s post on dotCommonweal below, we learned of the death of Jean Bethke Elshtain. Although we knew that Jean had been wrestling with deadly illness, the news was a shock. Like everyone who ever received an Elshtain Christmas letter detailing every school and sports success of her grandchildren, every vocational progression of her children, and always the devoted presence of her husband Errol, we thought first of the loss to her family and only then to the debt owed her as a political philosopher, wise teacher, and public intellectual of the highest rank. For Jean the links between the realities of family and those of political community were profound.
Two years ago, at a conference on Jean’s writing about democracy, I recalled the beginning of our friendship. In 1969 an unsolicited manuscript arrived at the office of Commonweal. It was a long review of a children’s book – a new edition of the First Book of American History by the eminent American historian Henry Steele Commager. The reviewer sliced into Commager’s complacent and inaccurate portrayals of American Indians, slavery, racism, and imperialism. The reviewer suggested that the book should have been subtitled, “How to Speak with Forked Tongue to the Kiddies.”
The reviewer was unknown, identified as a graduate student at Brandeis University. The book was not one we would have chosen for a review. But as a junior editor of a Sixties ilk I shared the reviewer’s impatience with grandees of the liberal establishment like Commager. I argued energetically for accepting and featuring the review as a “book essay.” It was published in the November 21, 1969 issue. Jean went on to contribute 16 more articles and 35 reviews to the magazine. I like to think that, in the words of Dean Acheson, I was “present at the creation.”
It was not only the critical democratic sensibility that appealed to me and to Commonweal, however. It was the seasoning of that sensibility with a skepticism about certain progressive and radical shibboleths, a streak of cultural conservatism, a respect for the family and, in particular, for religious tradition. In fact, I had no clear idea of Jean’s own religious allegiance. At that point it seemed more Quaker than anything else. I did know that she shared the moral qualms about abortion that made life on the left difficult for magazines like Commonweal and people like myself and, along with her other concerns about family responsibilities, made life with feminism difficult for Jean, although she was in so many ways an extraordinary example of a radical woman thinker and intellectual leader.
As a member of the religious caucus of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, the group that Michael Harrington started when the anti-Communism of the older Socialist current tipped over into support for the Vietnam war and Richard Nixon, I saw to it that Jean was invited to one of our conferences. Turning to the indefatigable Jean for a spoken presentation became a lifelong habit, right up to panel discussions in 2005 and 2007 on the morality of withdrawing from Iraq at our Fordham Center on Religion and Culture. Our paths crossed many times, including several years of service on a Lilly Commission on Religion in Higher Education.
But decades earlier a moment of truth had arrived. Jean called to explain that she and her husband and her son were all converging from different directions in New York. Could they crash at our apartment? Now it is one thing to admire a thinker and writer, especially one who writes about the family, from a safe editorial distance, and quite another thing to lend out the spare room and bathroom, and then witness the entire family dynamic at breakfast. Abraham Lincoln may be profound in the White House and at Gettysburg but I’m not sure that having the Lincoln family stay over in your Manhattan apartment would leave the same positive impression. The Elshtain family, however, passed this test with absolutely flying colors.
Jean and her family and ours remained friends ever since, despite political differences that arose in recent years. Jean began as a thinker and activist on the left. In some senses the left, especially the academic left, always remained her frame of reference. She brought a critical communitarian and eventually a religious outlook to the individualist, contractarian, and secular components of American liberalism and its philosophical antecedents. At the 2011 conference, her thinking on dangers facing democracy was criticized for its emphasis on multiculturalism and political correctness to the neglect of economic forces and the political consequences of recent turns in Republican and neoconservative ideology.
I had to agree that Jean’s lifelong effort to be balanced and her many sound animadversions against partisan and ideological intoxication had become selectively applied: “When Jean focuses on the perils to democracy, I think she looks primarily, even if not exclusively, to the left. In the United States, this is a good rule for crossing the street, but a far less balanced one for defending democracy.”
All this, of course, had more to do with the politics of the day than the perennial questions that Jean addressed in many of her books. And now as I contemplate her person and her life’s pilgrimage the criticism at the conference rings far less important than the utterly, utterly generous and gracious way in which Jean received it. In which she did so much. We are blessed to have known her.
Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.