The Washington Post

Jean Bethke Elshtain, scholar and ethicist, dies at 72

Jean Bethke Elshtain, a scholar and ethicist whose writings on religion, political philosophy and the doctrine of “just war” helped bolster the moral justification for the war on terror, died Aug. 11 at a long-term care facility in Nashville. She was 72.

The University of Chicago, where she had taught since 1995, said in a statement that she died of heart ailments.

Dr. Elshtain was a prolific writer and influential thinker whose ideas were often identified with neoconservative trends in politics and public life, particularly during the administration of President George W. Bush, with whom she had discussions at the White House.

In recent years, she was known as a proponent of the doctrine of “just war,” an idea that had its origins in the writings of St. Augustine, the early Christian philosopher who was one of Dr. Elshtain’s intellectual touchstones.

The doctrine holds, in simplified form, that there is a moral imperative to go into battle against forces of unambiguous evil. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Dr. Elshtain was among those who believed the Bush administration was justified in going after Osama bin Laden and, later, invading Iraq with the goal of ousting Saddam Hussein.

Jean Bethke Elshtain presents a lecture entitled "Harry Potter, St. Augustine and the Confrontation with Evil" at the Library of Congress in 2003. She died on Aug. 11. (Michael Temchine/Freelance)

In her 2003 book, “Just War Against Terror,” Dr. Elshtain applied the ideas of St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther to the exercise of American military might and moral authority in the modern world.

She criticized many left-leaning intellectuals in academia and organized religion for being soft on terrorism and for not recognizing the face of evil when they saw it.

“Repeatedly,” she wrote, “the worst possible gloss is put on American motivations and the best on the motivations of those who attacked us.”

Although many conservatives were receptive to her ideas, Dr. Elshtain was not formally aligned with any political group. She wrote more than a dozen books, which defied easy categorization and seemed to appeal equally to people on the left and the right.

As a practicing Christian, she believed the ideals of Christianity could provide a moral framework for public life — which, in her view, should include greater public support for poverty programs. She argued for less sex and violence in entertainment, but in a 2003 lecture at the Library of Congress about St. Augustine and the Harry Potter books, she highlighted the importance of evil as a creative force in culture.

Dr. Elshtain often wrote about the role of women in modern society and in wartime, but she was not a conventional feminist. In 1979, she wrote a story for the Nation in which she criticized the feminist movement for what she saw as its contempt for child rearing and family life in general.

At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where she taught from 1973 to 1988, she said she was denounced for assigning male authors and allowing male students to attend her courses on feminist thought.

Dr. Elshtain secured her place as a leading public intellectual with her 1995 book, “Democracy on Trial,” which political philosopher Michael Walzer praised as “the work of a truly independent, deeply serious, politically engaged, and wonderfully provocative political theorist.”

In her book, Dr. Elshtain wrote that a functioning democracy “depends on what might be called democratic dispositions,” including “a preparedness to work with others different from oneself toward shared ends.”

She believed that a democratic government required “a readiness to compromise in the recognition that one can’t always get everything one wants; and a sense of individuality and a commitment to civic goods that are not the possession of one person or one small group alone.”

Jean Paulette Bethke was born in Windsor, Colo., on Jan. 6, 1941. Her father was an educator, her mother a community activist. She was stricken with polio as a child and spent months in treatment at a Denver hospital.

She was a 1963 graduate of Colorado State University and received master’s degrees from the University of Colorado and the University of Wisconsin before earning a doctorate in political science from Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., in 1973.

After teaching at the University of Massachusetts, she was on the faculty of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where she maintained a home.

Survivors include her husband of 47 years, Errol Elshtain, who adopted Dr. Elshtain’s three children from an earlier marriage. They had a fourth child of their own.

Dr. Elshtain’s later books included a 2001 biography of Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House in Chicago and an early feminist philosopher, and other studies of religion and politics.

Throughout her life, she remained preoccupied by the ideals of democracy and the importance of compromise and cooperation in creating a just society.

“Compromise can be an ideal rather than a sign of collaboration with the regime,” she told the University of Chicago magazine in 1996. “It can be a way in which we make pledges to one another. It is, in fact, a democratic way to do politics.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read
Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
This isn't your daddy's gun club
A look inside the world of Candomblé
It's in the details: Five ways to enhance your kitchen makeover
Play Videos
A fighter pilot helmet with 360 degrees of sky
The rise and fall of baseball cards
Is fencing the answer to brain health?
Play Videos
John Lewis, 'Marv the Barb' and the politics of barber shops
How to prevent 'e-barrassment'
The art of tortilla-making
Play Videos
Circus nuns: These sisters are no act
How hackers can control your car from miles away
How the new credit card chip makes purchases more secure

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.