Obituary: Jean Bethke Elshtain, former professor of Political Science

August 15, 2013

Jean Bethke Elshtain, 72, former faculty in Political Science, who later influenced neoconservative policy makers in the post-9/11 era, died Aug. 11 in Nashville of endocarditis, a heart valve infection.

Born in Timnath, Colo., a farming town north of Denvers, grew up in nearby Fort Collins, Colo., where her father, a schoolteacher, principal and later school superintendent, had moved the family. After Jean contracted polio at age 10, she and her mother moved to Denver for treatment.

After graduating from Colorado State University in 1963 and earning a master’s degree in history as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, Elshtain received her Ph.D. in political science from Brandeis University in 1973. She joined the UMass faculty later that year and taught until 1989 when she moved to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, becoming the first woman to hold an endowed professorship there.

In 1995, she was appointed the Laura Spelman Rockefeller professor of social and political ethics at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.

Elshtain’s extensive writings on St. Augustine and his doctrine of the Just War brought her to the attention of President George W. Bush and his administration in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The premise of Just War was later used to bolster arguments for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

According to The New York Times, Elshtain became an ardent defender of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, even when evidence emerged that the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who had used chemical arms against his country’s citizens, did not have the weapons of mass destruction he was thought to have had.

Before 9/11, Elshtain was known for her writings on the tension between American individualism and the needs of society’s poor and vulnerable.

In her 1993 book, “Democracy on Trial,” she argued for what she called a more realistic approach to religion in public life. “Separation of church and state is one thing,” she wrote. “Separation of religion and politics is something else altogether. Religion and politics flow back and forth in American civil society all the time — always have, always will.”

She contended that a democratic civil society and all religions held a common objective: to protect the dignity of humans.

Her works included “Women and War” (1987), “Just War Theory” (1992) and “Augustine and the Limits of Politics” (1995) and “Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World” (2003).

She leaves her husband, Errol, three daughters, Sheri Deakin, Heidi Welch and Jenny Elshtain; a son, Eric; two sisters, two brothers and four grandchildren.