Humble Pie Eating Contest

Article excerpt

Byline: Lisa Miller

What it takes to get things done.

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. …