“To be loyal to some person, thing, idea, institution, or way of life is to define oneself. One cannot be a self without other selves around it. One requires the rough give-and-take of complex human lives. If, however, we lift our lives up to God, if we ask his forgiveness and place our weaknesses before him, we will not only come to know a peace we had not previously known; we will also be able to handle conflicts of loyalty in a spirit of good humor and fellowship.”-- Jean Bethke Elshtain, “On Loyalty,” First Things, August/September 2013
Ever since reading Jean Bethke Elshtain’s Democracy on Trial (1995), I have sought out work by this elegant and erudite public intellectual every chance I could. I read with dismay, then, the news of her death this past week at age 72.
Predictably, The New York Times went into automatic default mode in the first couple of paragraphs in its obituary of this University of Chicago political philosopher and ethicist, noting that she had become “an intellectual beacon for neoconservative policy makers in the post-9/11 era.” Later in the piece, the author, Paul Vitello, seems to have repented this stereotyping, noting that Dr. Elshtain “staked out positions across the political spectrum: insisting that society had a responsibility to help the poor and the vulnerable, questioning what she called the American cult of individualism, arguing that moral issues had a place in the political discussion and advocating all-out war on terrorists.”
Coming early in the culture wars that have proved so convulsive in the last two decades, Democracy on Trial has proven all the more relevant with each passing year. Its plea for civility has been sadly ignored by policymakers.
I knew about Dr. Elshtein’s moral astringency, but nothing about her courage until I read Princeton philosopher Robert George’s affectionate tribute, which recalled how she refused to let the limp she had developed (after contracting polio 60 years ago) dominate her life.
Two years ago, Dr. Elshtein converted to Roman Catholicism, the same faith as her longtime cultural hero, St. Augustine. May she rest in peace.