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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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