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Remembering Ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain, Who Backed 'Justifiable War'


Writer and ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain died this month in Nashville, Tenn. She was 72. As a very specific kind of political theorist, Elshtain was known as a realist, unafraid to talk about God. It made her a unique and influential public intellectual of her time. Rather unusually, she held a joint appointment at the University of Chicago in both the divinity school and the political science department. William Schweiker was Elshtain's colleague at the U of C, and her friend; and he offered this remembrance.

WILLIAM SCHWEIKER: One of the great things about having Jean come to the divinity school is that it allowed us to have a working political theorist on our faculty. But for her, it allowed her to use texts in her teaching and her writing, that are outside the usual canon of political science. And to be able to access that wealth of material can enrich a thinker's reflections on political life - which it did, in her case.

LYDEN: Grounded in both political and religious thought, Elshtain became a leading thinker on the concept of justifiable war, a tradition of Christian doctrine that goes back to Augustine.

SCHWEIKER: Christians under this tradition are to protect the innocent. And sometimes, that requires using military force to protect innocent people. And not only Augustine, who was a bishop in the church; but also Elshtain and a whole history of reflection, has seen that concern to defend the innocent as consistent with Christian faith.

LYDEN: That reflection made her a supporter of the use of U.S. power to protect the vulnerable as a moral imperative in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. And while Schweiker disagreed with his friend on that...

SCHWEIKER: Jean was a kind of firebrand. She was a gadfly, not easily pigeonholed. Folks who liked to pigeonhole her as, say, a neocon or a conservative, really missed the force of what she was trying to do, which was to provoke people to think seriously about the positions they held. I think she'll be remembered not for some system of thought, or not some grand political theory. I think she'll be remembered more for this insistence that when we're thinking about political and social matters, we cannot forget the vulnerabilities of human life.

LYDEN: Until her death, Jean Bethke Elshtain was still at work on the big issues of our day. She had turned her attention toward the political and moral aspects of sovereignty. Jean Bethke Elshtain was 72 years old. She died this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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