NEW YORK — Jean Bethke Elshtain — a philosopher of politics and religion whose erudite writings on good and evil, war and peace, and the moral imperative of American global military engagement made her an intellectual beacon for neoconservative policymakers in the post-9/11 era — died Sunday in Nashville. She was 72.
The cause was endocarditis, a heart valve infection, said her husband, Errol.
Mrs. Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller professor of social and political ethics at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago since 1995, was not easily pigeonholed ideologically. She staked out positions across the political spectrum: insisting that society has a responsibility to help the poor and the vulnerable, questioning what she called the American cult of individualism, arguing that moral issues have a place in political discussion, and advocating all-out war on terrorists.
In the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, Mrs. Elshtain was among a handful of scholars and religious leaders, including Franklin Graham and Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, invited to meet with President George W. Bush to discuss the response he was considering.
Mrs. Elshtain had expertise in one particular area of interest to the president, her husband recalled: She had written extensively on the fourth-century Christian bishop later known as St. Augustine and his doctrine of the Just War. That doctrine held that while Christians could not justify killing to protect themselves, they could engage in war to protect the lives of others. The notion became central to the Bush administration’s justification of the war in Iraq as in large part a humanitarian project to free the Iraqi people from a tyrant.
Mrs. Elshtain became an ardent defender of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, even when evidence emerged that 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.
“I get very irritated when people say Bush lied,” Mrs. Elshtain said in a 2010 interview with The University of Chicago Magazine. “These are very dense, thick issues.” She added, “If you have a dictator savaging his own people, does the international community have any responsibility to do anything about that?”
St. Augustine would contend that it did, she said, and so would she.
Before 9/11, Mrs. Elshtain was known for her writings on the tension between American individualism and the needs of society’s poor and vulnerable. As chairwoman of a disparate group of liberal and conservative thinkers assembled in 1998 by the nonpartisan Institute for American Values, she helped write a report, “A Call to Civil Society: Why Democracy Needs Moral Truths,” advocating for more welfare benefits for married couples, more funding for antipoverty programs, and less sex and violence on television.
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 said that a democratic civil society and all religions held a common objective: to protect the dignity of humans.
“She and I disagreed on many things,” said William Schweiker, a professor of theological ethics at Chicago’s Divinity School, who opposed the Iraq war. “But she never took it personally, and there was never any doubt about her commitment to the weak and vulnerable.”
She understood vulnerability in a visceral way, he added. Mrs. Elshtain was stricken with polio when she was 10 and spent years in hospitals struggling to walk again. Though she retained a slight limp, she traveled widely, giving lectures and serving visiting professorships at Yale, Harvard, Oberlin, Princeton, and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
In the university magazine interview, Mrs. Elshtain reflected on becoming best known for writing about war. “It has become my topic by default,” she said. “If we lived in less tumultuous times, I would write about it less.”
Jean Bethke was born Jan. 6, 1941, in Timnath, Colo. (population 185), a farming town north of Denver. She grew up in nearby Fort Collins, Colo., where her father, a teacher, principal, and later superintendent, had moved the family.
After graduating from Colorado State University in 1963 and earning a master’s degree in history as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, Mrs. Elshtain received her doctorate in political science from Brandeis University in 1973.
She was on the faculty at the University of Massachusetts Amherst from 1973 to 1988, when she moved to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, becoming the first woman to hold an endowed professorship there.
She continued to maintain a home in Nashville after moving to the University of Chicago.