Jean Bethke Elshtain delivering the 2012 Erasmus Lecture, ” On Loyalty .”
She died yesterday. It was not a surprise. Jean was suffering from a debilitating heart condition. But it was nonetheless a shock, as the sharp blow of death so often is, even when we see it coming.
Jean was one of the indispensable voices of cultural and political sanity in the post-sixties. She cared deeply about the common good, and she recognized that faith, family, and patriotic solidarity ennobled the lives of ordinary people. So she found herself defending those loves, often setting herself against the academic establishment and its dissolving ideologies. It required determination and courage, both of which Jean had in large, very large, measures.
It’s impossible to sum up a person’s scholarly career, especially someone with as varied interests as Jean’s. She had a sense of what needed to be said—and said it. But I’d venture this summation, one based on her comments while being interviewed a couple of years ago. Jean grew up in a small town in Colorado, and from that experience she drew a basic truth: Society flourishes only insofar as people share something of their lives with each other. Put differently: Justice is a virtue, not a system.
Jean was a presence. Small in stature, she filled a room. We’ll miss her moral passion and gift for speaking in a direct way about first things.
May she rest in peace.