Jean Bethke Elshtain
steadily weaken. This was known as the “secularization hypothesis,” and those who subscribed to it missed much that was and still is important.
The problem lies in part in the dominant terms of analysis within empiri- cal political science. Political theorist Joshua Mitchell, in an illuminating essay, describes the problem this way: “Human motivation and conduct were largely understood in liberal terms, under the guise of ‘preference’ and ‘choice.’ . . . Religion seemed then to be an anachronism, soon to be margin- alized if not swept away by ‘modernization.’”2 The vast majority of political scientists, having reduced religion to a set of private attitudes that had to give way before the onslaught of the powerful forces of modernization—which also meant secularization—lacked interest in the study of religion.
Let us take this a step further. Terms such as “preference” and “choice”—understood as narrowly self-interested—presuppose a human subject of a certain kind, one driven by calculations of marginal utility. In other words, the ordinary person was always “looking out for number one,” in one way or another, and his or her preferences were always re- ducible to utilitarian self-interest. Taking this as truth, political scientists missed all sorts of strong urgencies and relationships and beliefs. At the base of this error lay a flawed anthropology or understanding of human nature. It turns out that the language of the marketplace and its terms of reference, chief among these being “preference,” are not conceptually up to the task of dealing with certain phenomena, including religion. As Mitchell writes:
Religious experience is of a different order than having “preferences” . . . Religious experience cannot be understood as a “preference,” because the God who stands before man is not among the plurality of scalar objects among which he prefers this over that.3
One of my favorite illustrations of Mitchell’s point comes from a per- sonal experience. A young political scientist interviewing for a position at the university where I was then teaching visited the campus for the purpose of delivering his “job talk.” For him, everything boiled down to preference. All that took place in politics fit within the framework of choice as preference maximization. After his talk, I probed him further: When the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his great speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he did not say, “I have a preference today.” He said, “I have a dream.” When I asked the young scholar to explain the difference, he was stymied but finally replied, “Well, I guess his dream was really his preference.”
No, I do not think so. King’s dream was a religiously inspired vision of the collective deliverance of an oppressed people. It was a dream of freedom for each and every person trapped by a pernicious system of de jure segregation. Once again, the dominant language and modalities of mainstream political science missed the boat where religion and politics were concerned.