Christian ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain’s colleagues, family, and students remembered her this week for her commitment to serious thought and her love and respect for the people around her. Elshtain died of heart failure Sunday at age 72.
Elshtain was a professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago. She was known at various times as a philosopher, ethicist, and legal thinker, and published 20 books on topics from Augustine to women in war. She also delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh.
Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics told Religion News Service Elshtain was not on a “soapbox for women,” but was a pioneer for women in her field.
Elshtain became a prominent just war theorist in recent years, supporting particularly the war in Iraq and publishing a book on the war called Just War against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World.
“You won’t get a better person for combining philosophy and theological ethics with comment on the contemporary scene,” Martin Marty, a colleague at the University of Chicago, told Religion News Service.
Elshtain often found herself opposing mainstream thinking, but did not back down. The Catholic journal First Things said she often set “herself against the academic establishment and its dissolving ideologies. It required determination and courage, both of which Jean had in large, very large, measures.”
The academic community widely admired her, even when disagreeing with her views. One colleague, William Schweiker, told the Chicago Tribune they disagreed on many things but were close friends. “It was not as if her judgments closed her off to engaging with people of different opinions. She really was an individual who was willing to speak her mind and stand her ground even when others disagreed.”
Elshtain’s husband, Errol, said she loved engaging people on hard issues: “She asked hard questions, tough questions.”
Former students told stories of Elshtain taking time to talk with them not only about political and ethical theories but about family, health, and everyday life. They admired her warm personality and inspiring humility, even as she became famous.
One of her former doctoral students, Marc LiVecche, said she was “deeply invested in everyday things and spoke as much about her grandchildren as she did about Augustine. (She) insisted on the importance of family and friendship and faith as pillars critical to the support and maintenance of the free society and democratic virtue."
But her faith was also deeply personal.
“This is the great thing about someone like Jean Bethke Elshtain,” said Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George. “She can look the grisly realistic truth in the face and still remain hopeful. And I think that came for her from an abiding sense that human life is cradled in some greater reality—the divine. … She wanted to make sure we didn’t lose the notion of the sovereign God. If you lose that, you do fall into despair.”