Christian Philosopher, Ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain Passes Away

Jean Bethke Elshtain, an influential political philosopher at the University of Chicago, passed away on Sunday at the age of 72.

Elshtain served as the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics. She also contributed to Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs as an associate scholar for the Religious Freedom Project. Plus, she served as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a fellow at Princeton's Center for Advanced Study, and a Guggenheim Fellow. In addition to her Ph.D. from Brandeis University, she received nine honorary degrees.

She spent most of her life as a Lutheran and became a Catholic late in life. She wrote frequently on topics at the intersection of religion and politics, and gender and politics.

The Christian tradition of just war theory was one of her research areas. During the George W. Bush administration, she was seen frequently during public debates defending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2003, her book, Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World, was published.

"It's impossible to sum up a person's scholarly career, especially someone with as varied interests as Jean's," R. R. Reno wrote for First Things, where Elshtain was a frequent contributor. "She had a sense of what needed to be said – and said it. ... Jean grew up in a small town in Colorado, and from that experience she drew a basic truth: Society flourishes only insofar as people share something of their lives with each other. Put differently: Justice is a virtue, not a system."

Quoting Carlin Romano, American Enterprise Institute's The Body Politic blog notes that her academic goal "was not so much to lobby for specific policies as to push for good civic-minded 'individualism' over the egoism of 'bad individualism.'"

Writing for the Mirror of Justice blog, Marc DeGirolami remembers Elshtain's 2004 Journal of Law and Politics essay, "The Perils of Legal Moralism."

"Responsible citizenship means that moral adults can realize a life of freedom understood as ordered liberty – of both self and society. But, as a society, we seem to think people are stuck rather permanently in a stage of moral infancy or, at best, adolescence, as we rush to 'make a law' to cover every contingency, thereby blanketing all of life with a moralistic mandate," Elshtain wrote.

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