In Remembrance: Reading the Christmas Letters of Jean Bethke Elshtain (1941-2013)
By John D. Carlson | December 20, 2013
This time of year is, for many, a season of hopefulness—of anticipation and celebration of joyous things to come. Yet, as the cards and letters fill my family mailbox this year, there is one Christmas letter I cannot look forward to receiving, tingeing the season with sadness. Jean Bethke Elshtain, the eminent political philosopher and religious ethicist, died earlier this year on August 11. She taught for nearly two decades in the Divinity School and political science department at the University of Chicago, where she was my graduate advisor. Her many achievements and laurels were well-chronicled in obituaries in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic among other places: Giffords Lecturer; Phi Beta Kappa scholar; fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; holder of several major endowed chairs (some simultaneously); and recipient of dozens of honorary degrees, prestigious awards, fellowships, and distinguished lectureships. She served in key leadership roles on innumerable civic councils, advisory boards, and service organizations (including the advisory board at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, which publishes this journal). In the course of her career, she authored, coauthored, or edited 22 books and published more than 600 academic articles and essays on issues ranging from feminism, the family, and bioethics to democracy, just war, and international relations to St. Augustine, Jane Addams, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
It is little surprise that such a prolific writer spared no effort when it came to her personal correspondence. And she certainly knew how to write a great Christmas letter. I didn’t receive one from her every year, but when I did, her thoughtful, richly detailed missives were wonderful to read. Ranging from five to eight pages—single-spaced (!) on green stationery—they were written during Christmastide, once the frenetic part of the holiday had subsided, when one can more serenely contemplate the meaning of the Christmas season, as it bridges the old year with the new. The timing was symbolic as this was a theme not only in her letters, but her thinking more generally as she pondered weighty matters about how we ought to live and whom and what we ought to cherish.
Some might wonder whether Christmas letters written for family and friends have any place when reflecting upon a scholar’s legacy. Most Christmas letters contain details that do not warrant reprising in public fora or would be of no interest to others. We rightly set certain limits between our public and our private lives. This was a theme to which Elshtain herself attended, as she critiqued the excesses of the “sovereign self” and the expressive individualism to which it was prone as it sprawled uninhibitedly across various media outlets. Similarly, she condemned authoritarian governments that, as a matter of policy, transgress the boundaries that afford individuals vital protections against unwarranted intrusions. Vaclav Havel was a great inspiration to her on this point. I recall meeting up with Jean in Prague right after she gave a lecture on Havel’s work—as he sat just a few feet away. It was a tremendous moment for her, which I felt honored to share—just one highlight of many in her extraordinary career.
Thus while Elshtain was often skeptical of the feminist mantra “the personal is political,” she, nevertheless, made clear in her books and public interviews how deeply her own biography informed her thinking, scholarship, and identity. She was born and raised in a rural farming community in Colorado. Her small town values would be challenged as she came of age in the tumultuous 1960s, but she returned to them frequently throughout her life, as when she joined prominent intellectuals on the left and right during the 1990s to advance communitarian ideas. As a polio survivor who nearly died as a child, she learned to walk again but struggled with the debilitating effects throughout her life. So she understood human frailty and vulnerability all too well, but she also possessed an indomitably tough spirit. It was no small feat for a young divorced mother of three small children to make her way through graduate school in the 1960s or to rise to the fore in a male-dominated academy (and field of political science) in the 1970s and 80s. But nor was it always easy to be a young feminist whose concern for her children’s future fueled her critique of “mutually assured destruction”; for this kind of argument entailed rejecting the overreach of those feminists who marginalized the importance of motherhood. She was a fiercely independent thinker. “I call ‘em as I see ‘em on issues,” she maintained in one of her recent letters, “as I do not have a comprehensive political ideology.”
Scholars who write for The Nation and The New Republic as well as First Things and The Weekly Standard are a rare breed nowadays. But later, in a more partisan age, Elshtain sometimes struggled to find places to publish her work. A keen observer and critic of culture, she was never content, as some are, to seek sanctuary in her academic position: to stand safely outside the social and political domains she explored in her writings and classes. She was at times scorned for her views—for taking the “wrong position” on controversial issues or advising a president of the “wrong” party. (She was one of several religious leaders who advised President Bush after the attacks of September 11. Many forget she also was invited to the White House when President Clinton was in office, and I presume she would have accepted the invitation had she not been traveling overseas at the time.) A complicated thinker with a complex public persona—though a warm and wonderful human being—there was never any way to tease apart entirely the public and private sides of Jean Elshtain. Her remarkable character and lucid moral insight extended well beyond her public profile into private life. Thus my wager, in returning to portions of Elshtain’s letters, is that her Christmastide reflections might enhance our knowledge of her and perhaps enrich our own lives as well.
A review of her most recent Christmas letters—and her family graciously provided me several I was missing—reveals some common patterns and themes. They begin quite eloquently with a short meditative prologue: some poignant recollection, a revealing moment from a novel or film, a theological insight, an observation about political life or culture. One letter opens with a benison about “the promise of Christmas” and its primary theme of natality. The season prepares us, she mused, for “the possibility that something new and unexpected might burst through the crust of ‘the same’ and surprise and renew the world.” This was an invitation to recall not only how “the heavenly broke into the earthly” during the first Christmas, but also of the recurring patterns and unexpected moments of “breaking in” that this event made, and might continue to make, possible. This is an apt and exquisite insight for a scholar who understood so well—and, as a public intellectual, enabled many others to appreciate—the intersections of religious and political life. Elshtain was particularly concerned with the overlapping moral terrain that religion and politics share. Religion was never simply a tool with which to analyze, deconstruct, or critique politics but, rather, a deep well of moral resources upon which to draw for the purpose of informing, sustaining, or invigorating civic life.
Elshtain’s attraction to birth-emanating themes marked an area of overlap with the Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt, whom Elshtain admired and frequently engaged. Arendt once declared natality to be “the central category of political thought.” Elshtain was drawn to Arendt’s idea that the hope and possibility for new beginnings—even in earthly political life—were first intimated and might continue to be animated by the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Elshtain discovered a promising kind of religio-political ecumenism. Her Christmas letters offer a window onto her creative ability to integrate religious conviction with generous ecumenism.
One letter recounts a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories where she combined visits to famous Christian holy sites with reflections on the “human hopes, longings, sorrow, tragedy, [and] triumph,” of “so many diverse peoples … and claimants who have a stake in the Holy Land.” Raised a Lutheran, Elshtain married into a Jewish family and took her husband’s last name. Her career involved working collaboratively with secular and religious-minded people on many projects, for example, as a principal writer of important public statements such as A Call to Civil Society and What We’re Fighting For. (The latter prompted several significant dialogues in Malta between Western scholars and Muslim intellectuals from the Arab World.) She once even led a multi-year study group of Christian scholars in political science by insisting that Jewish participants be included. She never advocated “all roads leading to the same place”—an approach that too easily elides critical religious differences—but she believed that many religious themes need not be sectarian and that mutual religious understanding was both necessary and possible. “Insh’allah” (God willing), she says in one of her letters, following a trip to Oman where she lectured at the Grande Mosque in Muskat and a shariah study center for young women.
Politics cannot be sustained without hope. That was a theme at the heart of Elshtain’s ecumenism. Of course, as a good Augustinian, she also believed such hope as one has for politics must always be tempered by an appreciation of its limits. This point came through in another Christmas letter of December 2009 in which Jean invoked recent “wars and rumors of wars” that must always challenge those who identify with the Prince of Peace. This was the month in which, in a secular parallel, President Obama ordered a troop surge in Afghanistan before accepting the Nobel Peace Prize a few days later. It was also the year of the would-be Christmas Day bomber whose failed attempt to explode an airliner earned him (rightly, one comes now to think) the inglorious moniker of “Underwear Bomber.” Jean spoke of this event in her letter (having flown on that very flight from Amsterdam to Detroit a few years before). As a leading just war thinker, Elshtain spoke often of the ethical permissibility—in some cases, even the ethical necessity—of certain uses of force. She soberly maintained in her letter that war remains “a sad commentary, perhaps, but altogether unsurprising given then fallenness of the human condition.” Her commentary on the failed attempt to kill civilian airline passengers was no simple invective against terrorists (or critique of the kind found in her controversial Just War against Terror). Rather, it fit snugly alongside many other themes of her letters concerning the fragility of life: its fleetingness, brevity, and transience. More often than not, the threats to human life that she described were not political but of a far more ordinary type—the kind we all confront in the day to day: the passing of beloved relatives who have succumbed to old age, occasional illnesses, life’s various setbacks. But all in all, gratitude and feelings of blessedness were the reigning themes. Even in her final Christmas letter in which, after a year of extremely serious medical problems, she contemplated deeply her own mortality—the “tensile thread that separates life from death”—she invited her reader to cherish the Christmas season all the more: “the love, tenderness, fellowship, and beauty” found in Christmas’s promise of birth and renewal.
There is some risk to over-intellectualizing matters such as this—these are Christmas letters after all. And like all good Christmas letters, Jean always had lots of family news to report, most of it devoted to the achievements, wonders, and interests of her four grandchildren. In many ways, it is nothing special—indeed it’s pleasantly prosaic—to read others proudly recounting their children’s and grandchildren’s accomplishments in school, their hobbies, and highlights of family vacations. For a woman who was as accomplished, over-committed, and constantly busy as Elshtain was—her schedule would “fell a mastodon,” one friend told her—it amazed many people that she was able to remain so devoted to her family. She regaled her readers with the special trips she took with her grandchildren—one trip with each grandchild every year. What a fine tradition and exemplary way of linking new life with old. As many people know, for 18 years she flew between Chicago and her home in Nashville—primarily so that she could help raise her grandson. After her youngest granddaughter was born and until Jean died six years later, Jean took a “day off” every week in Chicago to care for her. This is not, I suspect, “normal behavior”—at least not average—for most high-profile academics.
It was in the course of family updates that Jean would mention some other notable highlights from the past year: a private concert given by “Sir Paul” (McCartney, that is) at the Library of Congress; hearing the pope at his weekly audience; various trips to Ireland, Italy, England, Israel, and Oman. But the most splendid “little” details about herself always came at the end of her letters. There one found mention of such happenings as the publication of her last book, her Gifford lectures Sovereignty: God, State, and Self; her awarding of the Democracy Service Medal by the National Endowment for Democracy (the previous year’s winner was the Dalai Lama); her selection to oversee a $4 million Templeton Foundation grant; or the four annual conferences convened to discuss her work. My favorite “little detail” was her announcement—at the tail end of an 8-page letter in 2011—that she was received into full communion with the Catholic Church; perhaps this moment comes so late (both in her own life and in the letter) because she conceived it not as a “conversion” but simply the “culminating step” of a lifelong journey.
Over the years, her Christmas letters alluded to future projects that her untimely death prevented her from completing. One was a book on “Movies and the Moral Life.” An aficionado of popular film, she wrote extensively upon them and even used them in her courses. December was an especially happy time for her as all the end-of-year Oscar contenders were released. She also hoped to write a book on exemplary cultural critics. She worried that “too much that passes as criticism amounts to bitter resentment and even hatred of one’s country. The great cultural critics, like the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, or Jane Addams, or Martin Luther King, and many others, were those who displayed their love of their country even as they chastised her for her shortcomings.” Elshtain saw herself in such a critic-cum-patriot mold as when, in one Christmas letter, she disapprovingly invokes the Allied fire bombing of German cities during World War II.
Interestingly, Elshtain herself was often criticized for being an uncritical patriot and supporter of her country. I’m not sure this is accurate, but her pointed rhetoric at times could certainly give that impression. She was confident in the positions she took, even on red-hot issues such as the Iraq War and coercive interrogation. Perhaps it is inevitable that someone who finds herself holding a minority position will err to the side of seeming overconfident. For this reason, I’m not sure she was able to be her own best critic. Indeed, she had so many other critics already. She did, though, recognize that these were not easy, “knock-down” cases. As a former debater, I gather she thought her role was to make the best case possible for her position—while preserving respect for those on the other side of an issue when they do the same.
In her final years, as her health declined, Jean’s reflections upon mortality became more poignant. Her 2011 Christmas letter begins with a beautiful musing on James Joyce’s The Dead and the John Huston film adaptation. In her letter, she recalls the wintry Ireland scene, following the Feast of Epiphany, as the character Gabriel looks out upon the snow-covered churchyard, crosses, and headstones. She quotes Joyce at length, leading up to the final verse of the story, as searching and somber as it is sublime: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Jean was clearly moved. She goes on to say, “Breathtaking in its beauty and sadness, the connection between this world and the next, between the living and the dead, is evoked so palpably it brings tears to one’s eyes. And one reflects on those who have departed—long ago, more recently—and, too, on those who have only recently joined us, whose human adventure lies ahead.” It was the young—those whose “human adventure” was just beginning—who inspired Jean throughout her life. Her children and grandchildren featured prominently in her writings and lectures on political life. They were her sources of inspiration, occasions for her social criticisms and worries, and the reasons for which she sustained hope about our world. Whether or not they were always visible in her prose, children were at the center of the moral universe that Elshtain introduced to us. And not simply her children, but our children: our inspirations, our occasions for concern, our reasons for working to improve the world. Children are our reasons for living, Jean often reminded us. And as she made clear in the prologue of another Christmas letter, they are also our reasons for dying. It is through children that we learn how to accept death:
So often on their deathbeds people recall their childhoods: the infant and the dying adult are brought together, the circle is made complete. There is nothing depressing about this … indeed, it may be a saving grace of some sort as we work to make sense of our lives and to tie the various parts together as we prepare to take leave of this earth—or, at least, we can see the horizon recede before us.
One of the many blessings of grandchildren lies in the fact that they, too, not only remind us of our mortality … but that they are living embodiments of our human story and its precious continuity. We anticipate with sorrow leaving them behind as we take leave of this earth but, at the same time, we also anticipate with joy that they are there and that a very precious, fragile story will continue.
Over the years, students, fans, and critics of Jean Elshtain were accustomed to imbibing her wisdom—or challenging it, in the case of critics—on all sorts of matters civic, political, and democratic. Often she moved so effortlessly from democratic deliberation to ethical evaluation to religious reflection that it could be easy to overlook Elshtain’s more theological side. Though, she never tried to hide it either. In one sermon that she preached at the University of Chicago Divinity School chapel, entitled “Life More Abundantly,” she urged an “awareness of life’s goodness that overflows the boundaries of the self and invites all to join in.” Once again, it was children—with their “awe and wonder”—to whom she commended us for guidance and inspiration. Elsthain’s sense of what mattered in life—of what really mattered, that is—was always at the core of her own political philosophy even when it wasn’t explicitly about politics or democracy itself.
And so, too, the Christmas message is not an especially political story even if has significant implications for political life and for the many goods and loves and bonds that life in a justly ordered polity makes it possible to cherish. At its best, politics only provides the conditions under which it is possible to preserve hope in the face of darkness, anxiety, or death. Many of us take this hope for granted, while others fervently pray for it each day. Elshtain’s Augustinian preoccupation with the limits of politics necessarily implies that there are other heights and hopes, other surges and swells, of human life that no polity can create—and that only morally deficient polities seek to destroy. What is so theologically revealing about the limits of politics is the capacious room left open for so much else: for life’s abundant “goodness that overflows the boundaries of the self and invites all to join in.” For Elshtain, a chastened politics leaves space for the blessings that matter most including, as she recalled at Christmas time, “the greatest gift of all”: the gift (or, for some, the Gift) of love.
I end this Christmas remembrance on a note with which Elshtain certainly agreed yet with words she did not herself pen. They come from one of her heroes, Hannah Arendt, who, in a keen moment of ecumenism, also reminds us that politics must leave room for the new and the unexpected and the abundant that it may yet “burst through the crust” to surprise us and refresh us: “It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their ‘glad tidings’: ‘A child has been born unto us.’”
John D. Carlson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University, where he also serves as Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.
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