Our friend Jean Bethke Elshtain died suddenly on August 11, 2013. Her death marks a great loss to the Library and to the Kluge Center. Much has been written about her as a scholar and public intellectual and as an individual steeped in the humanities. We at the Kluge Center just wanted to add a few personal words to acknowledge the debt we owe her for her service to the Library and the countless hours she spent advising and contributing to the life of the Center.
A member of the Library's Scholars Council since its inception in 2001, Jean provided inspiring advice that was always perfectly keyed to the Library's highest aspirations and that thoughtfully addressed the needs of the moment. She contributed often to various Library and Center programs, beginning in 2000 with an international symposium on “Democracy and the Rule of Law,” at which she joined three members of the Supreme Court in moderating various panels; hers was on the topic of “Religion, Culture, and Governance.”
Her 2003 lecture as the Cary and Ann Maguire Chair in Ethics and American History, "Harry Potter, Saint Augustine, and the Confrontation with Evil," melded seamlessly and with stunning precision, her scholarly brilliance, her concern with fundamental moral issues, and the extraordinary love that she brought to her family and all who shared her path.
In 2004, she participated in an international symposium at the Library titled “Stories of Our Nations, Footprints of Our Souls,” addressing questions about why we teach and learn history. An active proponent of improving civic education, Jean commented at the time: “History is not fixed but documents streams and flows of events and circumstances that occur over time. Young people, who take their bearings from their own time and place, need to see the interconnectivity of past, present and future.”
Later in 2004 she organized a film program, selecting a number of films (including “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Searchers”) to be shown at the Library to illustrate the theme "Movies and the Moral Life." She recommended books to read along with the viewing of the film and then introduced each and led a discussion of the moral and ethical themes each portrayed, commenting “Movies are the great American popular art form. Films stretch our sensibilities and force us to confront issues or themes that might otherwise have lain, quite literally, outside our field of vision.”
In 2007 she was a panelist in a discussion surrounding a ceremony marking the acquisition by the Library of the founding papers of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Only an illness in 2011 prevented her from moderating a “Conversation on Human Dignity,” a Kluge Center event that had been organized at her urging and with her inimitable energy and deep thinking informing every element of the program. Despite not being able to attend, she had prepared introductory remarks, which were read by John Witte, at the time a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Kluge Center and later also a holder of the Maguire Chair. Those of us who were there may recall some of her words as if she were speaking directly to us: “On this troubled globe of ours, proclaiming one’s dignity and one’s status as a possessor of rights may be the only weapon available to the downcast, the tormented, and the violated. It is a universal language, voicing a potent truth about the human person.”
We will miss our friend.