The cliché: Yesterday, White House fact checkers sought to disprove the falsehoods put forward by ... the White House. At Wednesday's press briefing, White House spokesman Jay Carney explained the president's belief that government should be helping the American people with the jobs crisis. "Well, I believe the phrase from the Bible is, 'The Lord helps those who help themselves,'" Carney said. But in the official transcript following the interview, Carney's sentence had a footnote added: "This common phrase does not appear in the Bible." This little Sunday school trip would all be more embarrassing for Carney if he'd been the first to make the mistake. In fact, people have long quoted the phrase as Christian Scripture. In 2000, George Barna, a religious analyst, conducted a survey of Americans' religious attitudes and beliefs. 75 percent of the 1,002 people he polled agreed with his statement that "the Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves." Even in the 10 years since this minor expose was covered in several American publications, the misconception persists. Just last year, Bill O'Reilly wrote, "But being a Christian, I know that while Jesus promoted charity at the highest level, he was not self-destructive. The Lord helps those who help themselves. Does he not?"
Where it's from: A helpful Wikipedia entry notes that the sentiment predates Christ, hearkening back to Ancient Greece, where it appears in several forms. The tragedian Euripides, for instance, wrote "Try first thyself, and after call in God; For to the worker God himself lends aid." Since then, some version of that sentiment has been prominently put into words by the Prophet Muhammed, French fable writer Jean de la Fontaine, and it was given its American iteration by Ben Franklin, who put it in his Poor Richard's Almanack. You'll note however that none of these originators are named "Jesus," and that's because neither he, nor anyone else in the Bible, ever said it. In fact, as some critics have noted, he said a lot of things that sort of contradict it. As Bill McKibben wrote in Harper's Magazine in 2005:
The thing is, not only is Franklin's wisdom not biblical; it's counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans -- most American Christians -- are simply wrong, as if 75 percent of American scientists believed that Newton proved gravity causes apples to fly up.
Why its catching on: The White House's self-correction got a lot of media snickers in the past day. And in the immediate sense, people seem to be pointing out Carney's mistake simply because its mildly funny that in a room full of journalists, it was Carney's own office that checked his facts and called him out.
Why else: Maybe when the White House issued that correction, though, they were trying to make a larger point. After all, when Bill O'Reilly and Barack Obama's spokesman are quoting the same seemingly-Biblical aphorisms to make points about modern politics, we've got to scratch our heads. The theological debate that it inspires -- that of an active God versus a passive one -- has a good parallel in the debate over government involvement often hashed out between progressives and conservatives. Conservatives would seem to evoke this phrase to suggest that people shouldn't look to some higher power (here, we can subtly substitute a Democratic "Messiah" figure for the actual Messiah) for help (read: welfare) with their problems. Carney was evoking just the opposite: We can't wait for God to work things out for us. So people (particularly, those in the executive branch of the Federal government) should help each other. It makes sense, then, that journalists would relish in an opportunity to correct a phrase being misappropriated by both sides of the political spectrum, perhaps in the hopes that it might inject a little humility into the overall debate. (On that matter, though, we don't have much faith.)
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.