Baylor Mourns Passing of Visiting Distinguished Professor Jean Bethke Elshtain

Aug. 13, 2013
Jean Bethke ElshtainJean Bethke Elshtain, Ph.D., one of America's foremost public intellectuals, had served as Visiting Distinguished Professor of Religion and Public Life at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion since fall 2011. (Courtesy photo)

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WACO, Texas (Aug. 13, 2013) - Baylor University is mourning the passing of Jean Bethke Elshtain, Ph.D., one of America's foremost public intellectuals and Visiting Distinguished Professor of Religion and Public Life at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR). The world-renowned scholar, who also served as The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the Divinity School at The University of Chicago, died Sunday at the age of 72.

"We are deeply saddened by the passing of Dr. Jean Bethke Elshtain, who was one of the world's leading scholars in religion and public life," said Elizabeth Davis, Ph.D., executive vice president and provost at Baylor. "Baylor University was extraordinarily privileged to have this brilliant Christian scholar join our faculty nearly two years ago as a visiting professor. But 'visiting' was anything but for Professor Elshtain.

"From actively working with our faculty, mentoring graduate and undergraduate students in political science, philosophy and the Honors College and engaging overflowing audiences at her public lectures, Professor Elshtain proved a remarkable example of a public intellectual unafraid to delve deeply into issues that are of fundamental concern to Christians in society today," Davis said. "Our prayers are with her family, who truly were the inspiration for her prolific body of scholarly work that focused on themes of democracy, ethical dilemmas, religion and politics, and international relations."

At Baylor and with ISR, Elshtain produced new scholarship at the intersection of religion and public life, while working alongside Baylor faculty as well as undergraduate and graduate students.

In addition, Elshtain's fall lectures were among her most anticipated contributions to academic life at Baylor. Before capacity crowds, Elshtain gave two University-wide lectures - "The Ups and Downs of a Christian Philosopher" in fall 2011 and "The Dark Knight and the Saint: Reflections on Batman and St. Augustine" in fall 2012 - demonstrating her wide appeal as one of the world's leading scholars in religion, political philosophy and ethics.

"We've lost a giant, truly a national treasure. What a privilege for Baylor to have hosted some of her last and most important lectures," said Byron R. Johnson, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences and director of Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion, where Elshtain was based.

Thomas S. Hibbs, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture and dean of the Honors College, described Elshtain's passing as "a huge loss."

"Jean combined wide learning, Christian witness, and a genuine love of conversation and argument. She managed to be civil and tough," Hibbs said. "She was that rare intellectual who simultaneously enjoyed and took everything and everyone seriously - from the most well-known scholars to the Honors College undergraduates with whom she graciously met during her visits to Baylor."

Elshtain was the author of many other influential works, including Women and War, an exploration of the traditional status of women as noncombatants; Augustine and the Limits of Politics, which applies Augustinian thought to contemporary politics and society; and Just War Against Terror, which made a vigorous and widely discussed moral argument for greater American military engagement abroad. Just War was named one of the best non-fiction books of 2003 by Publishers Weekly.

She also authored of Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought; Meditations on Modern Political Thought; Democracy on Trial; Real Politics: At the Center of Everyday Life; Who are We? Critical Reflections, Hopeful Possibilities; and Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy.

"We have lost a true leader in the political theory community," said David D. Corey, Ph.D., associate professor of political science in Baylor's College of Arts and Sciences. "She was never derivative, always fresh and provocative. And she had a way of constantly hitting the nail on the head when it came to defending the most noble but vulnerable traditions of our political culture."

Elshtain edited numerous books, wrote frequently for journals of civic opinion and lectured widely in the United States and abroad. She was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fellow at the Bellagio Center of the Rockefeller Foundation, the holder of the Maguire Chair in Ethics at the Library of Congress, a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton and a member of its Board of Trustees; and a Phi Beta Kappa Lecturer.

In 2002 she received the Goodnow Award, the highest award bestowed by the American Political Science Association for distinguished service to the profession. She served on the Board of the National Humanities Center and on the President's Council of Bioethics and was a member of the Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Scholars Council of the Library of Congress. In 2006, she delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, joining such previous Gifford Lecturers as William James, Hannah Arendt, Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr. Those lectures were published in 2008 in her book, Sovereignty: God, State, and Self.

In 2011 the National Endowment for Democracy honored Elshtain with the Democracy Service Award, which recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to the progress of democracy around the world. The award previously was given to the Dalai Lama, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, among others.

"Not only was Professor Elshtain the recipient of just about every honor an academic in the humanities can receive, but she was a deeply caring mother and grandmother and a staunch defender of American ideals of freedom against foes from both inside and outside the United States," Corey said.

"It was her love of country and her serious commitments as a Christian that motivated her. She was a fighter - this is something one senses when one reads her books. But she was a fighter animated in her every step by love - love of family, country and God. And the love shone through in all she did."

In addition to her Ph.D. from Brandeis University, Elshtain received nine honorary degrees.

Elshtain is survived by her husband Errol; her four children, Sheri, Heidi, Jenny and Eric; and her grandchildren, JoAnn Paulette Welch; Robert Paul Bethke, Christopher Matthew Welch and Christiane Lind Elshtain.


Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having "high research activity" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.

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