God, State, and Self


By Jean Bethke Elshtain

Formats and Prices




$16.99 CAD



  1. ebook $12.99 $16.99 CAD
  2. Trade Paperback $22.00 $25.50 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around June 10, 2008. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Throughout the history of human intellectual endeavor, sovereignty has cut across the diverse realms of theology, political thought, and psychology. From earliest Christian worship to the revolutionary ideas of Thomas Jefferson and Karl Marx, the debates about sovereignty — complete independence and self-government — have dominated our history.

In this seminal work of political history and political theory, leading scholar and public intellectual Jean Bethke Elshtain examines the origins and meanings of &”sovereignty”; as it relates to all the ways we attempt to explain our world: God, state, and self. Examining the early modern ideas of God which formed the basis for the modern sovereign state, Elshtain carries her research from theology and philosophy into psychology, showing that political theories of state sovereignty fuel contemporary understandings of sovereignty of the self. As the basis of sovereign power shifts from God, to the state, to the self, Elshtain uncovers startling realities often hidden from view. Her thesis consists in nothing less than a thorough-going rethinking of our intellectual history through its keystone concept.

The culmination of over thirty years of critically applauded work in feminism, international relations, political thought, and religion, Sovereignty opens new ground for our understanding of our own culture, its past, present, and future.


Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought
Editor, The Family in Political Thought
Meditations on Modern Political Thought
Women and War
Co-Editor, Women, Militarism, and War
Editor, Just War Theory
Power Trips and Other Journeys
Coauthor, But Was It Just?: Reflections on the Persian Gulf War
Democracy on Trial
Coeditor, Politics and the Human Body
Real Politics: At the Center of Everyday Life
Augustine and the Limits of Politics
Who Are We?: Critical Reflections, Hopeful Possibilities
New Wine and Old Bottles: International Politics and Ethical Discourse
Coauthor, Religion and American Public Life
Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy
Editor, The Jane Addams Reader
Just War Against Terror

Paul George Bethke and Helen Lind Bethke
and for
Dr. Harry Rosenberg,
who taught me to love the Middle Ages

We all carry within us our places of exile, our crimes and our ravages. But our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to fight them in ourselves and others.
I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard, as are all men and women living at the same time, whether they are aware of it or not.

The bulky envelope, forwarded to my Nashville, Tennessee, home from Chicago, bore the return address: University of Edinburgh. “Funny,” I mused, “I don’t think I know anyone at Edinburgh.” I opened the letter and entered into that condition of happy shock known to every person invited to be a Gifford lecturer. Being a lecturer in this most distinguished series is an unstated yearning for laborers in the vineyards of moral philosophy, theology, and, though something of a stretch, political theory. As I am not officially a philosopher, nor can I claim a theology degree, a Gifford appointment seemed a bit out of reach. But . . . then . . . there was Gifford lecturer, Hannah Arendt, she who insisted she was a political theorist, not a political philosopher, and that a good bit hung on the difference. This was cold comfort, of course, as who among us—certainly not I—would put ourselves in the same camp as the learned and erudite Arendt. Thus I had resigned myself—as a hedge against disappointment, no doubt—that a Gifford appointment would likely pass me by.
My delight at being included in the table of worthies is felt keenly. To be sure, the emotion that follows close upon delight is fear and intimidation. So many years . . . so many great books. At one point these considerations must be put aside. One does what one does, for better or worse. What I do is political theory with ethics as the heart of the matter. I decided long ago that one could no more separate the study of politics from ethics than one could hold back the tides. Important, then, to bring the ethics embedded in one’s political analysis to the fore as a constituent feature of what one has to say. I am enormously grateful to the Gifford selection committee for giving me the opportunity to explore in depth an issue that I have probed for over a decade now: sovereignty. How does one begin to take the measure of this protean topic? I begin here by reviewing my past work and noting the relevance of previous books to this study.
In my scholarly work and my life, I have learned that one cannot erect a bright line separating what we call public from what we call private. This was the subject of my first book. The issue of public in relation to private haunts me yet.1 No matter what the topic at hand, one can refract it in such a way that the public and private, the political and the personal, come into play. This involves no identity between public and private; indeed, that particular claim intimated noxious outcomes that I assay in yet another book.2 Public and private attaches itself to a third distinction—some insist a bright line—between what we call religion and what we call politics. It is this particular distinction, and its interweaving with public and private, that figures importantly in Sovereignty: God, State, and Self.
A bit of personal history will help the reader to appreciate the importance of this latter distinction to the book in hand. Let me take the reader back to a particular time, namely, the late 1960s. This was not a calm time culturally and politically speaking, as all Americans of a certain age well remember. The civil rights movement was in full swing. President Kennedy had been assassinated. Protest surrounding the war in Vietnam was heating up. The counterculture was preaching a “make love, not war” gospel. Some of us were struggling to understand what was going on and to sort out just where we “fit” in the overall scheme of things. Who were we anyway—as a people, as singular persons? I was at the time a graduate student in politics and, with a few rare exceptions, none of my graduate courses in political science touched on any of these matters. We were more or less obliged to leave such burning concerns off to one side when we entered the classroom.
The reigning epistemology was a variant on positivism called behaviorism. Its devotees proclaimed from the rooftops that the study of politics should be cleansed from the smudginess, messiness, and taint of “values.” A chasm separated descriptive and evaluative statements, we were told. There were facts—a kind of translucent relationship between a “name” and its object was assumed—or there were “subjective” things like “values,” “biases,” “emotional preferences,” none of which had any cognitive status. According to the critics, one wound up with a crummy deal: reductionistic “scientism” and subjectivistic emotionalism.
The upshot? Most of what people had to say politically, most of the emotions stirred up by politics, most of the language in and through which real politics was conducted, was consigned to a conceptual netherworld. No wonder I and so many of my classmates were vexed. We had entered graduate school on fire with ideas and passions, including political passions about creating a more fair, more free, more decent America, only to learn that these were “biases” that one could attach to the “facts” if one so desired. But such ideas and passions could never pass muster as a feature of the scientific study of politics.3
The hard version of the fact/value distinction made little sense to me. It made short shrift of concerns flowing from religion, or any other strong, normative commitments. In the narrow political science world, these were biases with no warrant for truth. Although my scholastic interests at the time did not touch on religion explicitly, they did revolve around consideration of the link between political inquiry and moral imperatives presupposed by classical theorists in the history of political thought. Political theory became a refuge for me precisely because I could take up the “big” questions—the nature of political order, justice, freedom, liberty, community—in the historic texts. Complex questions arose from the great tradition, and studying the canon drew me into a world of vital debates.
I observed, however, that something funny had happened on the road to canon creation in political theory: The “religious thinkers,” with few exceptions, were missing in action. As well, the religious dimensions of those thinkers who were central to the canon were often ignored or diminished. For example, John Locke’s scriptural references from his classic Two Treatises on Government were often eliminated from consideration, as if it was obligatory of Locke to toss that “stuff” in but one should attach little real meaning to it.4 Locke’s religion didn’t figure, save to position him as someone doing the sensible and right thing in severing statescraft from soulcraft in his famous Letter on Toleration. The thinkers whose religious commitments couldn’t be scraped off like so much stale icing from a two-day-old cake were admitted to the political theory world in excised form. Perhaps portions of St. Augustine’s City of God were taken up but not, certainly, his Confessions.
As for explicitly theological titles like On the Trinity or Augustine’s great arguments against the Manicheans and the Pelagians—that was the stuff of arcana, interesting only to that odd duck, the theologian. Perhaps a bit of St. Thomas Aquinas on the law from his Summa Contra Gentiles, but the reformers—Luther and Calvin—were nowhere to be seen. I recall to this day how transgressive I felt when I first began teaching Western political thought and assigned Martin Luther’s classic essay On the Freedom of the Christian in the same section in which we read Machiavelli’s The Prince, insisting, as I did so, that Luther’s text was arguably more important over the long run of Western history as it presaged profound alterations in the structures of selfhood, understandings of freedom, views of everyday life, ideas of authority and rule, and on and on. That this was a “bold move” on my part brings a smile to my face from my perch decades later.
Working on my first book, I incorporated thinkers that were usually omitted from the study of political theory. I further determined that ethical matters would take center stage. As I wrote Public Man, Private Woman, my assessment of my own state of mind was that whatever religious belief clung to me was scarcely visible in an overt way. Looking back, I realize that my critique of various thinkers from the canon, as well as of certain schools, tendencies, and ideologies in feminism, often reflected, if in derivative form, religious (specifically Christian in origin) ideas and commitments I scarcely knew I held at the time. I refer to such weighty matters as ontological presuppositions, anthropological considerations, ideas of human purpose and dignity, birth and death, the moral development of the child, and “the ethical polity,” as I called it. It took others to point out to me, often in the form of rather tart criticism that I had permitted too much “religious stuff” to creep into political theory. But the die was cast and I have, for thirty years now, worked to build bridges between religious and political concepts and understandings—more overtly so over the past fifteen years.
Being asked to join the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1995 gave me the opportunity to pursue with renewed vigor my effort to include the political dimensions in the texts of the great theologians and, in turn, the theological dimensions of the great political theorists in treatments of Western political thought. In other words, for the first time, I began working in reverse (so to speak) by bringing political theorists to bear on the indispensable works in theology. I mention “theology” with a certain trepidation. Although I have written an appreciative exegesis of St. Augustine’s magisterial De Trinitate—as part of a rather modest book on Augustine—I remain an amateur in theological studies.5 I say this not to be coy but, rather, from a profession of my own limits. Despite this I seem to venture onto theological turf with an alarming degree of regularity and thus far I have escaped the scholarly equivalent of being ridden out of town on a rail. This no doubt says more about the generosity of critics than it does of my own expertise. I am at it once again. One cannot write about sovereignty and God and escape theology. To the contrary, one is in the thick of it.
How come? Isn’t sovereignty primarily a political concept after all? I had indeed once thought so. To be sure, I uttered, with all Protestants, a version of the Lord’s Prayer that ends with these words: “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory. Amen.” This would seem to locate sovereignty full square in, or as, divinity itself. Kingdom, power, and glory sum up much of what students of political history summon when they recall the glories and treacheries of classical sovereignty in the majesty of kings and kingdoms.
I had not really studied any history of sovereignty, or the nexus between God and kingdoms, as a young student of government—this was only just before the study of politics became “political science.” As a student in several IR (international relations) courses as an undergraduate, I had, of course, learned that “sovereignty” is the locus classicus of the state, the sine qua non of political life. Sovereignty was the place from which one began. It was a concept to be accepted rather than explored—that had nigh ontological status. It was the membership card in the world of nation-states.
It occurred to me that this was a rather remarkable concept when I was working on my book Women and War.6 It seemed astonishing that a notion linked to medieval pro patria mori—to die for the father or the feudal lord—had transmogrified over the centuries, becoming attached to love and affection for one’s national home. The most common juridical or legitimate political configuration, the sovereign state, continued to underwrite the ideal (contested, to be sure) of dying for one’s homeland.
This sent me to the early modern sovereigntists, foremost if not first among these the redoubtable Thomas Hobbes. With Hobbes one finds the pretensions of sovereignty majestically enshrined as he writes of the sovereign’s awesome power; his terrible power; his not-to-be-trifled-with power that is subject to none save the sovereign God, although Hobbes’s sovereign God seems not to play much of a role in chastening earthly sovereignty, one of the key attributes of God for medieval theologians—at least until the emergence and imperfect triumph of nominalism. For with nominalism—as we shall see—construal of the deity shifted away from the lushness of Augustine’s trinitarianism with its heavy emphasis on the Mediator (the second person of the trinity); away from the elaborated and Aristotelianized trinitarianism of St. Thomas Aquinas, to a radical stress on God’s absolute power and his willfulness. It further occurred to me that there was something of that absoluteness and willfulness in early modern (which is to say postmedieval) construal of political sovereignty.
It followed that perhaps—just perhaps—theological understandings had migrated into early modern political sovereigntism. The more I thought about this, the more sense it made, given Hobbes’s nominalism and his ill-tempered but witty assaults on the “churchmen,” the Scholastics and their theological and moral realism, as contrasted with nominalism. At least as interesting was the undeniable fact that the theological backdrop to political concepts had fallen away in the study of political thought; indeed, there were some editions of Hobbes’s great work Leviathan that eliminated the entire second half on “A Christian Commonwealth” and “The Kingdom of Darkness.” Hobbes’s project was a political theology, but the theology fell out of the picture as the “canon” of Western political thought got “normalized.”
Perchance, I mused, there was a connection between the God of Augustine and Thomas and the notions of political life that prevailed in the Middle Ages, recalling my master’s degree in medieval history attained before the late 1960s hit and we all decided we had to study something “relevant.” (For me this had meant political science.) I now consider myself fortunate for having studied medieval and early modern history as the medieval epoch displayed a bewildering variety of overlapping jurisdictions, none of which could claim de facto the kind of absolutism that sovereigns began to embrace from the sixteenth century or so on. I also speculated that the papal doctrine of plenitudo potestatis, or a plenitude of power proclaimed de jure, added to the revival of Roman law, served as underpinning for early modern notions of political sovereignty. All of this is explored in detail in the text through historic reconstruction and interpretive political theory.
To this already complicated picture, one additional piece had to be added to make the matter complete, namely, modern notions of self-sovereignty. I pondered whether there might be a connection between prior constructions of state sovereignty, with notions of a possessed and inviolable territory, a kind of autarchy, and the celebrations of self-sovereignty and triumph of the individual will to power in which we are currently awash. What was the philosophical backdrop to this astonishing notion of the self? For there are alternative ways of thinking about persons that are more modest concerning how much we define and control our very selves. How did all of these pieces go together? I followed my hunch that the modern sovereign self owes a good deal to the modern territorial state: It is as if that entity got parceled out to constitute so many mini-sovereignties—ontological individualisms—in much of modern theory. The cultural critique and constructive argumentation in the book’s concluding chapters take up this challenge.
With these musings in mind, I began stalking sovereignty. In residence at the Library of Congress as the holder of the Maguire Chair of Ethics, fall of 2003, I decided to proceed “logically” by searching for titles under “sovereignty.” This message came back: “Your search retrieved more records than can be displayed. Only the first 10,000 will be shown.” Well, that was a relief! I gave up proceeding “logically” nearly as soon as I had embraced that strategy and decided to follow my hunches, in full awareness that I could but scratch the surface of this inexhaustible topic. These preliminary skirmishes led me to the rueful acknowledgment that my entry on sovereignty for the Encyclopedia Americana, 1997, limited as it was by space constraints, posited more than it proved. The Gifford lectures, and this follow-up volume, have given me the wonderful opportunity to make good on my preliminary musings and hunches. But it is a frustrating business withal knowing, as I do, that I am painting with broad strokes and that the devil is always in the details. Still . . . trying to bring some form to the canvas is the first step before one fills in the details.
A heads-up to readers: The discussion of God’s sovereignty will likely have the strongest appeal to historians of theological and political thought. I rather unabashedly bring back the notion of the “history of ideas”—an approach that seems to have run afoul of criticism in recent decades. This is a pity as, well done, tracing the evolution and migration of ideas is an important, even exhilarating, enterprise. This means, among other things, that one cannot abstract ideas from the textures, the warp and woof, of history. There exists a huge gulf that separates abstract concepts that the political theorist cannot do without, from abstracted-ness, draining all the messy life out of one’s subject matter. Without concrete history, political thought becomes a gnostic enterprise—all words, no flesh; all spirit, no-body. Then, disastrously, that disembodied enterprise invites schemes and ideologies that are imposed over the living, incarnate tissue of human life. One is left staring at the ruins wrought by this sort of arrogance when it is brought to bear on political and social life, even as one recognizes the palpable inadequacies of philosophies that are, quite literally, nowhere. The chapters on God’s sovereignty are a complex bringing together of theological themes, teasing out their political implications. The chapters on political sovereignty that follow work, so to speak, in reverse, as I unpack the theological themes imbedded in political argumentation, offering as I move along interpretations of key political thinkers in the West. These chapters involve nothing less than a retelling of the story of Western political thought.7 The final chapters on self-sovereignty offer cultural criticisms and constructive alternatives. Readers devoted to contemporary cultural criticism may turn directly to the self-sovereignty chapters and begin reading; hopefully, this in turn will send them back to the earlier chapters in order to figure out “how come.”
As I grow older and, hopefully, a bit wiser, I am ever mindful that St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s observation that “we stand on the shoulders of giants” is a truth that engenders humility and an appropriate awareness of the finiteness of one’s own enterprises. We are all laborers in the vineyard and, if we are lucky, we add just a bit to the storehouse of wisdom and knowledge that is our shared human inheritance. One of my persistent worries about our own time is that we may be squandering a good bit of that rich heritage through processes of organized “forgetting,” a climate of opinion that encourages presentism rather than a historic perspective that reminds us that we are always boats moving against the current, “borne back ceaselessly into the past,” in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s memorable words from The Great Gatsby. This historic recognition should not occasion resentment or dour heaviness; rather, it should instill gratitude. As this book drew to a close, I realized that it was no culminating magnum opus—few books are—but, rather, a contribution to the shared memory of our time and place. And that is enough.
Jean Bethke Elshtain
Chicago, Illinois, and Nashville, Tennessee, fall 2006

THAT GOD ALONE IS SOVEREIGN IN ALL THINGS, IMMUTABLE, THE FULLNESS OF truth, reason, and goodness was an article of faith—faith being the most perfect act of human reason—within the regnant Thomism of Europe’s High Middle Ages. God’s sovereignty over the human intellect held that human beings could come to God and discern his existence and divinity through the light of intellect and reason. Faith was not cast in opposition to reason, as many now have it, most often critics who seek to discredit faith as irrational emotionalism. Too, for our medieval forebears in the West, human law should aspire to emulate the laws of God. Should human law deny or transgress divine law, the lesser (human) law must give way before the greater. It followed that kings who became tyrants, hence lawless, were despots who might be removed from office, for they had defied its normative requirements.
But something happened to this cluster of imperatives as theological nominalism and voluntarism—to be explained in detail below—challenged the theological realism that held there was a moral order, discernable through reason and available to all. This chapter will be challenging for the reader—it was certainly challenging for the author—as we trace the movement from God as Logos to God as will on the level of thought and as proleptic to modern sovereign political configurations. The central question and puzzlement is this: If God’s power is absolute and immutable, is God in any way bound, or is, instead, God free to undo what he has already done, overturn the laws of nature, perhaps, or even bring creation to an end? At first blush, it isn’t easy to discern what the political implications of these theological issues might be. That will be our task as we unpack construals of God’s sovereignty and their possible implications for the earthly tasks of fashioning communities, kingdoms, principalities, laws, and justice.
There are at least three sets of considerations that confront us: (a) God’s sovereignty as a theological proposition and the nature of that divine power and authority, (b) the relative positions of spiritual and secular authority on the level of thought once Christianity had introduced that distinction, and (c) the working out “on the ground” of these respective authorities, including whether either can be said to be sovereign and, if so, how.1 Our task here is to describe a “moral concept” of sovereignty that can be distinguished from the later, territorial one with which we are all familiar: sovereignty as the sine qua non of states.
One begins with Sovereign God.2 What does it mean to say “God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth”? This moral concept of sovereignty was not attached to a notion of territory but assigned as one of God’s powers, the heart of God’s authority over all of creation. Just how terrifying, comforting, or enduring a concept is this? God’s sovereignty has passed the endurance test, although challenges have been mounted as to whether God is, in fact, sovereign and in what ways it might be said that he is. Throughout history Christians have been terrified and comforted by the idea. For this is a sovereign God who empties himself of his power and binds himself to human beings through the second person of the Trinity, Jesus the Christ, who is born, crucified, and risen again in Christian theology and doctrine.3


A place to begin “working” these questions is with St. Augustine and his magisterial treatment of the Christian doctrine of the triune God.4 Augustine understood that God’s all-powerful immutability gives him dominion over all his creatures and, further, that God’s power and glory is all-encompassing, so that not even a hair on a human head goes unnumbered. Human beings are subject to their creator. But how are we to “think” the question of God? Can we in any way rise to him? Does he in any way come down to us? The answer to each of these questions, for Augustine, is yes. To him it was clear that ever “since the Prologue to the Gospel of John, the concept of logos has been at the very center of our Christian faith in God,” in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, who adds: “Logos signifies reason, meaning, or even ‘word’—a meaning, therefore, that is Word, that is relationship, that is creative. The God who is logos guarantees the intelligibility of the world, the intelligibility of our existence, the aptitude of reason to know God . . . and the reasonableness of God . . . even though his understanding infinitely surpasses ours and to us may often appear to be darkness.”


On Sale
Jun 10, 2008
Page Count
352 pages
Basic Books

Jean Bethke Elshtain

About the Author

Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at The University of Chicago. She is the author of over four hundred essays in scholarly journals and journals of civic opinion, and some one hundred and seventy five book reviews, and was a contributing editor at the New Republic.

Among her books are Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy (Basic, 2001), Just War Against Terror (Basic, 2003) and Democracy on Trial (Basic, 1995). She lives in Nashville, Tennessee and Chicago, Illinois.

Learn more about this author