An Introduction to Jean Bethke Elshtain and to reviews of her book, Just War Against Terror

[1] Jean Bethke Elshtain is not a novice to the disputes surrounding our culture wars. Hers is a steady, sober, and prevailing voice in today’s debates over the trials of democracy, the relationship of ethics to international politics, and the place for patriotic allegiance in a pluralistic world.

[2] She has written 17 books, 340+ articles, 120+ book reviews, and delivered more than 180 guest lectures. From her position as Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago, she is a highly sought-after guest speaker and lecturer. Beginning at the age of 13 as a newspaper publisher in her home town of Timnath, Colorado – when a best friend accused her of being crazy because of her ideas – she has weathered criticism from the left and the right. Her views on democracy’s decline and the need for orienting social values, as well as her practical application of just war principles to contemporary events, have elicited strident criticism from left-liberal scholars.

[3] Since receiving her Ph.D. in politics at Brandeis, she has taught at Smith College, Yale, Oberlin, Amherst, Vanderbilt and the University of Chicago.

[4] She is married, the mother of four, and grandmother to three.

[5] Those wanting to pursue the ideas of her “Just War” book will want to consult her Just War Theory (’91), Democracy on Trial (’95), and her most recent The King Is Dead: Sovereignty at Century’s End (2004).

Why This Book?
[6] September 11, 2001, was a moment of epiphany for many Americans. The horrific events of that day caused them to re-think many recently acquired, yet fiercely-held certitudes and time-honored assumptions. Among the insights gained from the terrorist attacks of that day were some with a quite lengthy pedigree: i.e., the ancient Christian conviction that humanity is capable of great evil; the commonsense notion that the post-Berlin Wall world still requires of the world’s only super-power a posture of vigilance and military preparedness; and the often forgotten truth that moral equivalence in the arena of international relations can be an extremely perilous position.

[7] In the intervening three years, after Afghanistan and Iraq and the predictable waning of the initial outpouring of patriotic ardor and resolve, the American populace is once more divided over the necessity, purpose, and moral value of engaging in a war against terror. Indeed, the issue now is raised as to whether the wars we fight are against terror at all, and whether the pay-off from fighting is worth the cost. Granted, goes a familiar argument, the United States had to do something in response to the attacks on New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., but aren’t we inciting jingoism, trampling civil rights, and becoming overly militaristic in the process?

[8] Enter Jean Bethke Elshtain, with a timely book aimed at addressing the appropriateness – even the moral necessity – of Christians supporting those national policies necessary for self-preservation, and essential for the preservation of the values of Western civilization which comprise the common good. Her task is to explain how imperial power cannot be evaded within a moral universe; and where Christians can find the moral limits to that power.

See reviews by Brent Adkins, Daniel Bell, and Jeffrey Swanson.

Michael Shahan

Michael Shahan is Book Review Editor of Journal of Lutheran Ethics. A retired ELCA clergyman, Shahan does freelance writing from his Nashville home.