University of Chicago political scientist Jean Bethke Elshtain died yesterday. First Things, which broke the news online, reports that Elshtain "was suffering from a debilitating heart condition."
Elshtain, a political philosopher who made it her career goal to "show the connections between our political and our ethical convictions," was among the country's "foremost public intellectuals." CT previously named her one of 50 women to watch last October.
Elshtain grew up in a Lutheran home in rural Colorado and became devout at a very young age. But as she pursued her education throughout the '60s and '70s, Elshtain said in an interview, she "just couldn't figure out how to think about politics without thinking about ethics."
"This really had a confluence with the times: the debates about civil rights and about the Vietnam War came together with my own religious background to point me in the direction of thinking about ethics in its relationship to politics," she told University of Chicago's The Fish magazine. But Elshtain eventually did make a career out of thinking about politics and ethics as being explicitly linked. According to First Things,
Jean was one of the indispensable voices of cultural and political sanity in the post-sixties. She cared deeply about the common good, and she recognized that faith, family, and patriotic solidarity ennobled the lives of ordinary people. ... 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.
Her belief in the important role of justice often led her to set herself "against the academic establishment and its dissolving ideologies."
Elshtain also was a prolific writer, authoring and editing many books including Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought; Who Are We? Critical Reflections, Hopeful Possibilities; and Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World.
The last of these titles led her to write a 2010 essay for CT in which she defended the just-war theory, as well American military presence in the Middle East.
Given that the U.S. had already established its presence in Afghanistan, she wrote in 2010, "our present dilemma is not whether we should be there or not, but how we can best secure the situation and eventually withdraw."