Feature

Jean Bethke Elshtain, 1941–2013

The academic who argued for a ‘just war’ in Iraq

Ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote about feminism, religion, and poverty. But she gained prominence by writing about war, after neoconservatives embraced her 2003 book Just War Against Terror for its robust defense of invading Iraq. “[War] has become my topic by default,” she said. “If we lived in less tumultuous times, I would write about it less.”

Born in rural Colorado, Elshtain was 10 when she was “stricken with polio,” said The New York Times. After relearning how to walk through years of struggle, she launched a brilliant academic career in which she “staked out positions across the political spectrum.” As a professor at the University of Chicago from 1995 on, Elshtain became “a leading public intellectual” articulating religion’s role in public policy, said The Washington Post. “Religion and politics flow back and forth in American civil society all the time,” she wrote. “Always have, always will.” She adopted the position of 4th-century Christian thinker St. Augustine that “there is a moral imperative to go into battle against forces of unambiguous evil.” In the week after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, she was among the religious and academic leaders invited to the White House to advise President George W. Bush on his response.

Elshtain’s 2003 book was “brutally and often unfairly attacked” by liberal academics, said WeeklyStandard.com, but she was unapologetic. “I get very irritated when people say Bush lied,” she said in 2010. “These are very dense, thick issues.… If you have a dictator savaging his own people, does the international community have any responsibility to do anything about that?”

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