The virtue of humility in politics

In a recent speech full of allusions to Bible verses and Christian hymns at the National Baptist Convention in Kansas City, Hillary Clinton focused on Christian humility.

She acknowledged that “Humility is not something you hear much about in politics.”

But, she said, it should be. Those who truly understand “the awesomeness of power and the frailty of human action” – that is, those who manifest humility – are “our greatest leaders.”

Of course, this speech was smart campaigning. It reminded voters of what she sees as a competitive advantage with her opponent. It was also good Baptist theology.

But, humility is not merely a Christian virtue. Humility is an essential aspect of every major religion. For that matter, humility is more than just a religious virtue. In my research, I have argued that humility is also an essential democratic virtue.

So, why is humility so essential in a democracy?

Humility, religion and politics

Like most Christians, Baptists believe that all people are sinners, that all of us are condemned by God’s righteous judgment and that there is nothing that we ourselves can do to alter that condition. If we are saved, it is because of God’s actions, not ours. Humility is the only appropriate response to these tenets of faith.

What’s more, Jesus himself washed the feet of his disciples and humbled himself “even unto death.” So, devout Christians are called to do no less.

However, politics and humility just don’t go together. Politics requires ego; you need to present yourself as a better alternative than your opponent. Humility means that you aware of your own failures, and are respectful of those with whom you disagree. Seen in this light, many believe that in our society, humility has become “counter cultural” and that politics is a leading cause. Continue reading

  • Christopher Beem is the Managing Director of the McCourtney Institute of Democracy, Pennsylvania State University.


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