In Memoriam

Jean Elshtain, Christianity, and War

A leading American theologian of just war has died. Will she have successors?

By 8.29.13

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The famed Christian ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago died earlier this month. She was notable as the increasingly rare theologian willing vigorously to affirm America’s right to self-defense in the world, resisting the crosscurrents of pacifism that now afflict much of Christian academia.

In the wake of 9-11 she wrote the manifesto “What We’re Fighting For,” which several dozen prominent religious thinkers endorsed, and which declared:

Reason and careful moral reflection…teach us that there are times when the first and most important reply to evil is to stop it. There are times when waging war is not only morally permitted, but morally necessary, as a response to calamitous acts of violence, hatred, and injustice. This is one of those times.

But I best remember her riveting performance at the National Press Club just a few weeks after 9-11 when she debated famed pacifist theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University. While he largely relied on quips, she responded with robust articulation of the state’s ethical imperative to defend its people from aggression.

“When a wound as grievous as that of September 11 has been inflicted on a body politic, it would be irresponsible, it would be a dereliction of duty, it would be a flight from the serious vocation of politics to fail to respond,” Elshtain insisted, noting that “government is instituted by God” with a “solemn responsibility.”

A good society cannot exist “absent a measure of civic peace and security,” Elshtain noted, adding, “If evil is permitted to grow, good goes into hiding.” And it’s the vocation of office holders to safeguard peace and security, even if the means are not “ethically pure” but still “ethically defensible given what is at stake, given the issues at hand, given what the alternatives are.”

Elshtain resisted minimizing 9-11 as a law enforcement issue, which would “radically diminish what happened,” and ignores that an “event of that proportion is simply going to fall outside the boundaries of the domestic legal and penal system to deal with it.”

Responding to Elshtain’s articulation of Just War teaching, Hauerwas joked, “Christians don’t develop theories of Just Adultery,” as the means of “last resort.” He warned that Just War “always leads to the spiritualization of the Christian faith,” which is why he remains “committed to Christian non-violence.”

Hauerwas and Elshtain had been sort of friends, or at least friendly colleagues, each representing the epitome of Just War versus absolute Christian pacifism. But Elshtain’s 2003 book carefully defending the War on Terror provoked a ferocious review co-authored by Hauerwas, who dismissed it as “nothing more than [Christian] window-dressing for a passion to impose America upon the world.” Indeed, “her Americanism glows throughout as the dangerously radiant mirror image of bin Laden’s ‘ideological fanaticism’ (her words, often used).” He even claimed her language mimics an “al-Qaeda training manual.” And he faulted her assumption that “rights-based, market-ordered democracy (‘America’ for short)” is superior to every other form of political order,” and which she likens to the “New Jerusalem,” without “spot or blemish.”

Elshtain’s work, Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World, was to Hauerwas beneath contempt, as it was “not a book whose argument should convince Christians; it is not a book whose argument should convince anyone thoughtful; it is a book—and here, out of respect for its author, we do not mince words—informed by jingoistic dreams of empire.”

In First Things, where the critique appeared, Elshtain simmeringly reacted: “When confronted by a review so tendentious and unfair, it is hard to know where to begin a response,” likening their comparison of her with al Qaeda to the “tried and true techniques of propagandists everywhere.” Citing Hauerwas’ “loathing” of America, about which he is quite candid, she said that he, while “looking out at a world filled with violence and oppression,” has “nothing to offer” fellow citizens “but denunciations of their own society.” She concluded about Hauerwas’s review: “The crude message of this screed suggests to Americans that they are essentially deluded by their leaders, even as it simplistically indicates to the Christians among them that in finding something worth defending in their society they are thereby being untrue to the demands of their faith.” Her response was more civil than its target, but her friendship with Hauerwas, such as it was, likely never fully recovered.

As always, Elshtain was undeterred and continued on boldly with other works in philosophy and theology. The ethics of war and national defense were only a small part of her wide-ranging career. She was a Lutheran who late in life converted to Catholicism, perhaps partly due to her relationship with Cardinal George in Chicago, who had favorably reviewed the book that Hauerwas so despised. With Hauerwas-style anti-Americanism in mind, he had surmised you “cannot effectively criticize what you loathe.”

Elshtain avoided loathing and instead based her work on love of God, humanity, her country, and discerning truth. She will be much missed when American Christianity and culture are so ethically uncertain.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.