Carl Gershman’s introductory remarks for Jean Bethke Elshtain at the 2008 Lipset Lecture

Canadian Embassy – Washington, D.C.

I want to begin by thanking Minister Roy Norton, the Embassy of Canada and Ambassador Michael Wilson for hosting this evening’s event.  As an emblem of U.S.-Canadian friendship and common democratic commitment, this lecture is an enduring tribute to the intellectual legacy of Seymour Martin Lipset and to his special interest in understanding our country’s northern neighbor, and what that could tell us about ourselves.
I also want to thank the Albert Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers for their continuing support for this lecture.  They are valued partners in this initiative, as in so many others.

I will soon have the high privilege and distinct honor, as the Speaker says when introducing the President of the United States, of introducing my dear friend Jean Bethke Elshtain.  But before I do, I want to say a brief word about Marty.

Who among us did not wish at least once during the recently concluded and immensely protracted national election cycle that we didn’t have Marty with us to put the momentous events we were living through into a truly meaningful historical, cultural and, yes, comparative perspective?  I don’t know where Marty would have come down on the issues and candidates, or what he would have thought about how our political system has adapted to all of the extraordinary transformations that have occurred in the way we communicate information and the impact that has had on public opinion, or in the way the candidates and parties now raise funds and campaign, or in the way our demographics have changed, our values have evolved, and our society has been able to integrate once-marginalized groups.  But two things I feel pretty confident about: Marty would have seen certain enduring patterns of behavior demonstrating how exceptional and in many ways unique America continues to be; and he would have had an absolutely fantastic time following the whole process.

You’ve all been given a copy of a pamphlet containing a chapter from Marty’s seminal book, The First New Nation, related to the theme of tonight’s lecture on “Religion and Democracy.”  The pamphlet is actually an extraordinary gift to all of us, and I want to briefly explain why.  After Syd, in consultation with Marc and Larry, decided that this chapter, “Religion and American Values,” was the most relevant of Marty’s essays to distribute at tonight’s lecture, we ran into a problem.  There was no electronic version of the essay, and the scanned copy simply did not look good.  So Sydnee took it upon herself to type out the entire essay, and the Journal and Forum staff pitched in by proof-reading and formatting the finished product.  If you want to see how much work Syd put into this, just check out some of the footnotes.  What you now have is a truly beautiful memento of tonight’s lecture.  It is a symbol and a demonstration of Sydnee’s undying devotion to Marty, and her love.  As such, it is something we will all cherish, and read and re-read with a very special appreciation.

And now to my high privilege and distinct honor.  I know of no one, literally no one, who is more worthy of giving a democracy lecture in Marty’s name than Jean Bethke Elshtain.  When Cliff Orwin introduced Jean last week in Toronto, where she delivered the same lecture she will give this evening, he described her as “arguably the most eminent political theorist in America today.”  That she is, but she is also so much more.

Jean is a product of small-town America, having grown up in the village of Timnath in northern Colorado, population 185.  She joined the faculty of Vanderbilt University in 1988 as the first woman to hold an endowed professorship in the history of that institution, and she is currently the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at The University of Chicago.  She is the author of more than a dozen books and more than 500 essays, all of them illuminating the connections between our political and ethical convictions.  Her most recent book, Sovereignty: God State, and Self, is based on the Gifford Lectures she delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 2006, joining such previous Gifford Lecturers of great eminence as William James, John Dewey, Albert Schweitzer, Hannah Arendt, Reinhold Niebuhr and Raymond Aron. 

But that, too, doesn’t quite explain why Jean is so special.  I first met Jean in early 2002 after the release of the statement “What We’re Fighting For” that defended America’s decision, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, to defend itself through force of arms.  Jean had taken the lead in drafting that statement and organizing the sixty intellectuals who signed it.    I have said many times that this statement remains the most effective act of public diplomacy issued from this country since 9/11, the reason being that it did not harangue or posture but presented a coherent argument, based on just war theory, explaining why we had the right to defend ourselves, and in so doing were also defending human freedom.   The enormous and heated response the statement generated in Europe and throughout the Middle East showed what a profound impact it had, even if it had not persuaded our enemies and critics.

Jean joined the NED Board soon thereafter, and I think I speak for the whole Board as well as the NED staff in saying that she has been a total joy to work with.  As busy as she is, Jean has found the time to participate with the staff in reviewing hundreds of proposals, after which she has patiently explained them to her colleagues on the Board, always pointing to the larger issues at stake in some of the most difficult and conflicted countries in the world.  I think the reason Jean is so involved in what we do is that she’s not just an intellectual, as important as that is, but is also a fighter at heart who understands and is able to connect with the activists on the ground in these countries who are engaged in real political struggles.  Of course, so is Jean herself, as I know from the countless emails recounting her battles on one campus after another with academics who believe themselves to be courageously fighting fascism in the United States.  Unlike these pampered professors, Jean knows courage, and she’s got the scars to prove it.

At a conference held three years ago on the legacy of Sidney Hook, Jean said that like Hook, she believed that democracy “was not reducible to a set of procedural arrangements, as important as these might be, but was, ineluctably, a MORAL PROPOSITION.”  It is, she said, as Sidney Hook once wrote and as Marty Lipset exemplified, “democracy as a way of life, animated by an equality of concern for all human beings.”  Jean stands proudly in this tradition of deep and strong democratic conviction, which is why we’re so honored that she is with us this evening to deliver Lipset Lecture.