Friday, 7 August 2020  
  HOMILETICS INTERVIEW: Jean Bethke Elshtain

Keeping the World from Getting Worse


Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago. She is the author of many books, including:

The Jane Addams Reader

Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy

Who Are We? Critical Reflections and Hopeful Possibilities

Augustine and the Limits of Politics

Democracy on Trial

Women and War

Power Trips and Other Journeys

Meditations on Modern Political Thought

Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought

She is the editor of The Family in Political Thought; co-editor of Women, Militarism and War; co-author of But Was It Just? Reflections on the Morality of the Persian Gulf War; editor of Politics and the Human Body; and editor of Just War Theory.

Professor Elshtain is also the author of more than 400 articles and essays in scholarly journals and journals of civic opinion. In 1996, she was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is the recipient of seven honorary degrees. She is co-chair of the recently established Pew Forum on Religion and American Public Life.

We met with her on a cold morning in March in her office, recently vacated by Martin Marty, in Swift Hall overlooking the quad at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

HOMILETICS: In your book Democracy on Trial you sense a decline in civil society. Is America in trouble?

ELSHTAIN: I suppose there’s a sense in which America is always in trouble. Our ideals are so lofty that it’s very difficult to live up to them fully. And probably it’s not possible to do that. We have very high aspirations as to what citizenship means, what the country stands for. So the reality of life will always fall short. The question is: “How short?”

What animated me at the time I wrote Democracy on Trial was the perceived decline — and I think it was an accurate perception — of citizenship involvement in communities. Some people point to things like the vote, but I was more interested in whether people were putting their shoulders to the wheel in their communities, investing their time and energy with all the voluntary organizations that have always been one of the very distinctive features in American civil society, something that de Tocqueville observed in his great work. And to the extent that American democracy turns very heavily on that kind of free action of free citizens, then to the extent that’s not being done, it would seem to suggest that we’re in some kind of trouble.

HOMILETICS: What’s the cure?

ELSHTAIN: Much tougher. Let me point to one thing that I think we can do much better, and then one insuperable problem. Let’s start with the insuperable problem.

The insuperable problem is, quite honestly, men and women alike are working full time in increasing numbers. When you look at the work of the community that was being done — much of that was being done by women. They were the ones who were “at home.” Well, “at home” meant “in the community.” So it was a public life of a certain kind. And as more and more women became absorbed in the work force, and as work has become more demanding, not less demanding, as we move away from production jobs to service sector jobs, there’s just less time to devote, even if you had the impulse to do the things in the community.

We also know that the people who do devote themselves in this way are more likely to be church people. Church people are just more involved in a variety of activities that benefit their neighbors. And that’s a good thing, obviously. But it doesn’t completely address this issue. So that just seems to be an insuperable problem.

If I could wave a wand, I’d like to say that there should be a living, family wage. One person — I don’t care if it’s the man or the woman — could earn a wage for the whole family, or two people working part time. But that’s a la-la land. That’s a utopian vision. I don’t know how you could mandate it. I don’t know how you get around that issue.
The thing that I think we could do something about that would make a difference — a difference on the margins, but that’s where social scientists look for the differences — would be to restore civics education. I co-chaired a task force on civics education for the American Political Science Association, and we discovered — no one knows why this happened — that civics just dropped out of the curriculum.

I was at a dinner last night with some of my students. We were honoring one of my students who was leaving the staff of the Pew Forum, and we gave her a nice dinner, and none of them — there were six of us, me and five students — had had civics. I said, “Well, what did you have?” One said, “Well, I had a class on diversity.” Another said, “I had a history class.” Why and how did that happen? Don’t know for sure. I mean, I have some suspicions.

But it’s terribly important to bring civics right back into the picture because we know from the studies we commissioned on this task force that those who had some civics education just know how things work and are more likely to think of themselves as efficacious as citizens and more likely to know what to do. How do I sit down and write a letter? How do I lobby? How do I become part of a group that does that? So I think we really need to restore civics education.

HOMILETICS: But you also talk about the problem of a juridical culture and a therapeutic culture.

ELSHTAIN: Yes. I don’t see any reversal of these trends. Identifying these trends is perhaps a first step. I noticed, for example, yesterday during the partial-birth abortion debate in the Senate, and the bill will certainly pass and the president will sign it, and that happened before — Congress passed a bill and the president didn’t sign it — this time (there will be Democrats voting for it, too) Bush will sign it.

Then I heard some representatives from the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) saying that, “Well, you know, we’ll just go to the courts. We can’t get anything legislatively.” Which is to say, “We can’t get anything democratically. We can’t persuade legislators, so we’re going to go get the decision we want (they hope) through the courts.” Then, when the activists (I don’t care what side you’re on — it tends to be liberal activists who work through the courts most effectively) can’t get what they want, they argue that the whole system is rigged against them.

Of course the courts are a part of our democracy; I don’t mean to say that they’re blatantly anti-democratic. But to move the onus, the burden, from your own shoulders, and to try to pre-empt the process and to say, “I’m just going to take it to the courts” is a strategy that I think de-politicizes and de-politicizes in a way that leaves people very grumpy, and for good reason, and to wonder whether even if they pass a law, working very hard, will it really matter? Because this group or that group will simply turn to the court.

HOMILETICS: Therapeutic culture?

ELSHTAIN: There are some straws in the wind that suggest that at least there are some people fighting back against its overwhelming predominance. For example, there are some people in the world of psychology who have raised all kinds of questions about this so-called recovered memory stuff, and how flawed that is, and how irresponsible many of those people were 15 years ago who were leading the charge, hysterical charges, against day-care workers. It turned out a lot of this stuff was simply bogus.

There are people who are calling that into question. I don’t watch this stuff, but I’m told that this guy Dr. Phil, who’s all the rage now, that it’s not so much get in touch with your feelings, but shape up and take responsibility as adults.

HOMILETICS: So are we recovering a sense of sin in the culture?

ELSHTAIN: I wish. Certainly psychologists are not necessarily talking about sin, but they’re talking about taking responsibility. There was a very interesting piece in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago challenging the view that you should just relive and constantly talk about some traumatic event and that will make you better when, in fact, it seems to make you sicker.

Again, no theological language in that, but the emphasis was on the capacity of human beings for reconciliation and grace and to be open to the possibility for that, and they can reconcile themselves to their own past and then live a future that isn’t totally narcissistic and self-referential. I think that all of those possibilities are best understood in theological terms that the public square has largely been denuded of. My friend Andrew Delbanco, he’s in English literature, wrote a book a few years ago about the death of Satan, and it was just about the disappearance of that imagery that was so powerful in American literature. You can’t read the great books without it, but that’s just gone away.

HOMILETICS: But after 9/11, one well-known TV commentator urged the audience not to use the word “evil” with respect to the people who perpetrated these acts, and then President Bush does use the word “evil” to describe a geopolitical axis. How do you talk about sin in a secular, and religiously pluralistic culture?

ELSHTAIN: Well, I think you have to straightforwardly talk about it. We like to talk about syndromes instead of sin. It’s not the same thing. So I think you just have to talk about human weakness, human failure, human transgressions, and there’s a word for that, and it’s the word “sin.” I think the vast majority of Americans understand that, just as the vast majority have some hold on the notion of evil. Whether one agrees fully with the president’s use of it or not, he’s speaking the lingua franca of Americans. When certain really unbelievably hideous things happen, that’s the language you start to search for. Nothing else seems adequate. Justice only makes sense, in the retributive sense, if you have some understanding of wickedness and evil. The Europeans don’t like it, but that’s their problem, not ours. When we talk like this they think we’re unsophisticated Americans. They’ve lost something very, very important, and very precious, and one day they’re going to wake up and realize it’s a terrible loss.

HOMILETICS: What is the appropriate role for faith communities in the public square? How do we preach on public issues?

ELSHTAIN: You have to do it in a way that is sensitive to the fact that, if you’re going to make your case legislatively, you’ve gone through all the arguments you can with a non-theological vocabulary. But then you get into gray areas like the “common good.” Is that theological? No. I think these are theological categories that have migrated over into our political language. And we need to make more use of such terms.

So I think you can make arguments in that way, at the same time realizing that the fullness of your reasons may not be exposed at every point. It doesn’t seem to me that Christians are called upon to lay every single card on the table at every point. There is a language that is adequate to the task. There may be some issues that call for a full-blown set of arguments.

Euthanasia, for example. Unless you’re working with some account of the God-dignity of the human person, it is much harder to give the full argument as to why mandated physician-assisted suicide is a very bad thing. But there is a whole range of other issues, mental issues, budget issues, where you don’t have to bring the fullness of that understanding to bear.

HOMILETICS: The word from the Lord.

ELSHTAIN: Exactly. Above all, if you want to be political, you’ve got to persuade. And I think you want to bring as many people on board with you as you possibly can with a language that’s available to them. As I said, I think most Americans don’t have trouble with language derived from religious discourse. They do have trouble with someone saying “God dictates that,” but no intelligent person in political life is going to make that kind of argument.

HOMILETICS: In the post-World War II era, the liberal Protestant church thought it could have a major impact on policy issues in the secular world, and it did. But now, in our religiously pluralistic culture, hasn’t the church become marginalized and less important?

ELSHTAIN: The story of liberal Protestantism would help tell that tale. It strikes me that even as the power and effectiveness of mainline Protestantism was waning, the power and effectiveness of other religious communities was growing.

The religious right, for example (and I’m not one of those who thinks you should bash the Christian right every day of the week), here’s a group that had been basically, completely marginalized and had been since the Scopes trial. They just drew the wagons in a circle and tended to their own communities — wound up discovering a voice, and finding some effectiveness in the public square by being quite unabashedly who they were. Catholics, who were for a long time cautious about entering the public arena because of the powerful string of anti-Catholicism in American life, felt quite emboldened to step forward on issues, including abortion, and did so from a stance of faith.

Even as liberal Protestants were becoming almost indistinguishable from the secular culture, so much so that it seems to me now that when the mainline denominations weigh in on the Iraq issue, I’m not sure who’s paying attention. Their influence has waned rather dramatically, and it’s waned in part, not simply because of our growing religious diversity, but because they’ve rather systematically abandoned their own theological traditions, it seems to me, to a great extent.

HOMILETICS: You’re interested in Jane Addams. What’s the attraction?

ELSHTAIN: The attraction for me was that this was a woman with an absolutely incredible moral posture who found a way to be extraordinarily effective in American public life in an era before women even had the vote. Her idea of citizenship was a very capacious one, it wasn’t limited to the franchise. I identified in part with some of her struggle to find a way to make a difference, find a way to be active. She had this long, 8-year period of doubt, where she fell into depression. The diagnosis for her was bed rest, which was in effect to prescribe more of the illness —

HOMILETICS: —More depression.

ELSHTAIN: Right. And it was only when she was able to put her ideas into action that she found a cure. I admire her because she absolutely loathed self-pity. I think there is altogether too much self-pity going around. Everybody has to be a victim. She absolutely loathed that. She thought that was the lowest pit into which a human being could fall, leading to a kind of weird narcissism

HOMILETICS: So she’s your kind of feminist.

ELSHTAIN: Yes! She emphasized the importance of families, what was happening to children, that you don’t make social change on the backs of children. And I admire, although I don’t share, her pacifism. I admire her struggle to find a way to embody her pacifistic ideas and practices. I don’t think she succeeded. I think she’s a very worthy interlocutor for someone like myself, who as you know, locates herself within the just war tradition. Her childhood hero was Lincoln. My childhood hero was Lincoln. She grew up in a small town. I grew up in an even smaller town. She’s got that Midwest openheartedness. It’s so American, and it’s so wonderful. There’s something generous about it.

HOMILETICS: Has feminism lost its mystique?

ELSHTAIN: Yes. One of the things that told me that — there have been many points along the way — was over 15 years ago when I was first referencing Jane Addams in some of the presentations I was giving, and I remember on one occasion I was rather bitterly denounced (this was in a period of time when we feminists were specializing in denouncing one another), calling Addams this horrible thing (I’d never heard this before) as a “pro-natalist” and “maternalist,” and I said, “You do know that she never married and had children.” Didn’t matter. She was pro-natalist. I mean, who’s anti-birth? What is this?

So she was the wrong kind of feminist. So here you have this woman who was the most famous, most public woman of her time, and she wasn’t being resurrected as a feminist heroine. So one reason I pursued this was that this just made me angry. This just wasn’t right.

There’s not quite as much of that now, in part because the younger generation of women coming through don’t seem obliged to genuflect in the direction of ’70s feminism, and that’s a healthy development because I think they’re freer to explore all kinds of things.

HOMILETICS: So you’re not going to be in Augusta in April?

ELSHTAIN: What’s that? Oh, is that the business at the golf course? Oh, heavens no. I think that when it comes down to pressuring Tiger Woods, it just tells you how petty and picky this thing has become.

And I was also denounced before the Jane Addams, very bitter, nasty stuff way back in the ’70s, because I was arguing that the family wasn’t the source of all evil, and maybe there was a good reason for thinking about the family and thinking about how you work out genuine relations and mutuality and equity between men and women within the family. It’s irresponsible for feminists or any group to “smash” (which was the favorite term) an institution for which there is no substitute. What do you propose to substitute for it? So I think that you can share some of the general concerns of feminism and not share at all the animating philosophy of feminism.

HOMILETICS: A few days ago the House passed an anti-cloning bill —

ELSHTAIN: Yes, I was on a panel before the House Judiciary Committee two summers ago arguing in favor of that.

HOMILETICS: There are two components to this bill: the outright banning of the cloning of human beings, and the banning of cellular research.

ELSHTAIN: You are not permitted to clone in order to harvest stem cells.

HOMILETICS: Here’s the question: In a secular culture that’s religiously pluralistic, how is ethical discourse even possible? Whose truth prevails?

ELSHTAIN: I can tell you how I approached it when I made my little spiel. I didn’t use any explicitly religious language at all. I talked about human dignity. I talked about certain features of the American tradition which included our recognition — belatedly — that the traffic in human beings was immoral, illegal and inconsistent with foundational American principles as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (of course, the reference there is slavery), and that the image of industries devoted to the creation of human life only for it to be destroyed, that it become a commodity to be boxed, sold and marketed evokes certain horrific images of a world in which everything can be bought and sold and that we were unfortunately inching toward such a world with some people proposing the sale of organs, or the sale of babies, because that would be more efficient than adoption, or the mass creation of embryos and then their destruction. And then the temptation would be to let the embryos grow just a few more weeks, and we can get even more stuff from them.

Sometimes there really are slippery slopes. I daresay: Most people, if you present the case to them that people are going to say that in the name of compassion, in the hope that cures will be discovered for this and that, we have to remind that we’ve been promised this before. None of these things have panned out in the way people have said they would. Remember the cure for Parkinson’s from fetal tissue? It turned out to be a horrific disaster and made these people much worse off as you know — uncontrollable spasms with experimental subjects.

It is no accident of course that the sponsors of this bill in the House and in the Senate are religious types, but they have to make their case to people who aren’t.

HOMILETICS: Stanley Hauerwas argues that Christianity does bring us into conflict with the culture, and that it’s not about reforming the culture. The church is God’s sign of hope in the world. We need to understand that. How does your agenda differ from his, or a Jim Wallis.

ELSHTAIN: Well, I’m an Augustinian, and that’s not an Augustinian position. I went back not too long ago and reread H. Richard Neibuhr’s Christ and Culture —

HOMILETICS: Are you Neibuhr’s daughter?

ELSHTAIN: Reinhold’s daughter! [laughter all around] This was Christ and Culture. Christ against culture is one stance. But there are a number of other, far more complicated positions, it seems to me, than contra mundum, and the more complicated position is the one I would associate with Augustine. There’s a famous colloquy in Augustine’s The City of God in which he puts the question about whether a Christian should be a judge if called upon to do that, and he says “Yes.” It’s an inherently tragic vocation and goes on to explain why that is. You’re going to punish some innocent people and let some guilty people go. It’s just inevitably going to happen given the fallibility of the human mind and the flaws in human will, but yes, you’re obliged to do that.

The great strength of Christians historically has been that engagement, that preparedness to engage the world and to think about the ways the world might be transformed, not made perfect, but transformed. You can do that if you locate appropriately the peaceable kingdom at the end of time, but just as I said at the beginning of our discussion, just as we aspire us to something that we can never quite reach, well certainly the image of the peaceable kingdom functions on earth in much the same way. We can’t get there, but we can think about how to make the world less cruel, I was saying to my students last night. One of them said the world was so messed up. There’s nothing I can do. I said, “No, you can keep the world from getting worse.” That’s my view. Our task is in large part a negative one: keeping the worst from happening. And maybe if you can keep the worst from happening, some good can be done as well. But there’s that first task of interdiction. Albert Camus, in that great speech he made at a Dominican monastery on what the unbeliever expects from Christians, said, “You know, if you won’t join me in this task in preventing the triumph of evil, who will?”

Bonhoeffer is so good on this issue. In his Letters and Papers from Prison he talks about the man of virtue who retreats into his own purity; his hands, in effect, are not going to get sullied and dirtied with the things of the world. What does that mean? The world is going to hell. As he said, the bleeding brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ are being led off to the camps. You’re going to maintain your purity and not engage the world? I don’t think that’s Christian.

HOMILETICS: He uses that marvelous image when he says that while the Church has a duty to bind up the wounds of those the wheel has crushed, it also has a duty to stop the wheel —

ELSHTAIN: — to put a spoke in the wheel. I think that’s absolutely the case. Once, in a debate, I raised this issue of purity, “Well, I’m going to be a pacifist even if things go to hell and the terrorists keep killing us.” And of course Stan did one of his typical quips, you know: “Hell, I’m from Texas; purity is not an option!” [laughter]. But that’s a quip, not an answer. It doesn’t respond to the concern I raised.

In something coming out next month, Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power, I ask, “What happened to the Neibuhrian tradition?” Where has it gone? The mainline has just lost it, it’s just evacuated that tradition that I associate with both Neibuhr and Tillich and those great sermons that he [Tillich] broadcast into Nazi Germany over Radio Free Europe about the responsibility. I don’t think that responsibility is enacted from the stance of a pseudo-pacifism — they have nothing to propose concretely about what should be done about a Saddam Hussein, but no, no, never a war. How can they be enabling Christians from a stance of supposed moral superiority to denounce those who take on the responsibility of the world because they’ve got dirty hands? I just think that’s an impossible stance — finally.

HOMILETICS: So in the global village, the person who is able to wield power in a beneficent way has an obligation to do so?

ELSHTAIN: Absolutely. And I would say in a responsible way. One of the things I hope to work on — we were talking about evil — is about those who daily have to confront it — homicide detectives, people in child protective services, and so on, that those of us who are safe in the academy or the clergy, we’re happy those folks are doing it, but we’d rather not know too much about it. We’re happy to be able to go to bed at night and have a pretty good chance of waking up in the morning safely in our own homes.

So we assign these tasks, but look down on the people who do them, we don’t want to confront what it is they have to deal with, and then when there’s some excess — and there always will be when people are taking on a task — we roundly condemn them and think we’ve done our moral duty. I just think that’s way too easy.

HOMILETICS: Tell us about the influences that most shaped you?

ELSHTAIN: Certainly my parents were the most significant. My mom and dad were very different kinds of people. My mom was a kind of ferocious person and always had a clear-cut sense of right and wrong and what’s wrong with those people over there? My dad was like, “Well, you know, Helen, they can see the light, we just need to be patient with them.” Sort of a reversal of the usual assumptions about gender. The two of them had a very strong moral compass.
My dad was very ameliorative, give people time, work on persuasion; my mom was like “Oh, for Pete’s sake! Make them stop what they’re doing right now!” So if you love your parents as I did, you negotiate between them. And of course these stances that my parents embodied, they’re embodied in the world in all sorts of ways.

My Christian formation was very important in the Lutheran church, and Lutheran confirmation school was a very serious thing in those days, very serious. We had to memorize the catechism. I didn’t know what we were doing, but we did hermeneutics, the reverend would have us meditate on a passage. It was much more interesting than what I was doing in school. School was a breeze for me. Confirmation school was extra, so interesting.

HOMILETICS: So your acquisition of this office here is a sort Lutheran succession? This is the Lutheran office!

ELSHTAIN: Maybe. [laughter] Although I tell Marty that he’s the most cheerful Lutheran I’ve ever met. I think he has a far more benign view of the world than I do.

Then I mentioned Lincoln, and there’s Albert Camus, and Bonhoeffer, and I put these people in my intellectual backpack. Augustine is another one. Hannah Arendt. And others.

HOMILETICS: What Bible story or text resonates deeply with you?

ELSHTAIN: Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Also, the moment he examined the coin and talks about rendering to Caesar and unto God. And I would have to add, and this is one of our grandson’s favorites, the feeding of the 5,000, the notion that there’s enough for everybody, that in God’s economy, there’s no scarcity, things don’t run out, a certain kind of conviction that there will be enough. There’s something about that that I always found really powerful, I suppose in part because it runs counter to our view about how the world works.



Jean Bethke Elshtain



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