At a post-election press conference last week, President Barack Obama engaged in some public self-reflection. He felt “bad,” he said. The “shellacking” he and his party sustained the night before had prompted him to consider what in another context he might have called his shortcomings. Could he have done more to help some of his Democratic colleagues save their jobs, he wondered? Might he have articulated a more supportive stance toward American business—and, come to think of it, gotten out of the office more? “Sometimes,” he mused, “we lose track of the ways we connected with folks that got us here in the first place.” Losing, he said, is a “humbling” experience.
When politicians start talking about humility, as they do ritualistically after elections, the warning light on the BS detector goes on. Surely no professional group has a weaker claim to that virtue than today’s divided, self-righteous, and spin-savvy politicians. And too often the politicians (and religious leaders) who do make a case for humility have the least basis for doing so. In an August 2007 speech, then–New York governor Eliot Spitzer expounded upon Reinhold Niebuhr and the virtues of humility in the public square. “What I’d like to reflect on today, and this may come as a surprise to some of you,” he said, “are the inevitable risks that occur when [political] passion and conviction are not sufficiently tempered by humility.” Seven months later, he resigned, tagged forever as “client No. 9.”
Yet despite our justifiable cynicism, we expect—we want—our political leaders to be humble. We call them “public servants,” after all—a rhetorical trick that connects the leaders of the land to the people who clean their houses and invokes the utilitarian ideal of individual submission to a greater good. Because the word “humility” has such biblical resonance—and because the phrase “humble politician” feels oxymoronic where “public servant” does not—I asked some Christian leaders to define humility for me. “It’s a spirit of self-examination,” answered Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary and an advocate for more civility in public discourse. “It’s a hermeneutic of suspicion toward yourself and charity toward people you disagree with.”
“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less,” wrote Timothy Keller, the New York City preacher and author, most recently, of Generous Justice, in an e-mail.
In the political sphere, a little bit of humility helps get things done. “If legislators want to legislate—and not just appeal to a rabid group of supporters come hell or high water—that’s going to be in a system that involves compromise,” says former Missouri senator John Danforth, who has recently founded a center for religion and politics at Washington University in St. Louis. In such a system, “It’s very helpful to believe that your program is not immutable. And that the other people you’re dealing with have something to say and something to add.”
Polls say that most Americans now want politicians to “make consensus” rather than “stick to principles.” Perhaps that’s why the word “humble” (and its inverse, “hubris”) has been strategically cropping up in political speeches and interviews—and not just by Democrats. In an October interview with the National Journal, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned his party against repeating the errors of the past. “After 1994,” he said, “the public had the impression we Republicans overpromised and underdelivered. We suffered from some degree of hubris.” On election night, the presumptive speaker of the House, John Boehner, struck a similar note. “This is not a time for celebration,” he said. “This is a time to roll up our sleeves ... We are humbled by the trust the American people have placed in us.” And then he cried.
Proof of the authenticity and durability of these sentiments will lie not in further television testimonials but behind closed doors in a willingness to put aside the posturing and fix what’s wrong. In his current self-reflective mood, the president might be able to give a little on the Bush tax cuts—by temporarily extending them, for instance, to families who earn more than $250,000 a year but less than some reasonable, mutually agreed-upon ceiling. The Republicans might back off from their blanket opposition of the president’s health-care law and concede that parts of the legislation may well improve the life and health of millions of people. Humility means sometimes having to say, “You win.”
Lisa Miller is NEWSWEEK's religion editor and the author of Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife. Become a fan of Lisa on Facebook.