"God helps those" helps Obama

November 4, 2011

I'm all for biblical literacy.
I think it's embarrassing when the White House press secretary publicly misattributes a proverb to the Bible,
especially when it's such a classic of the Bible-misattribution genre: "God
helps those who help themselves."

Still, it's annoying to see
the president's fascinating invocation of God on the stump overshadowed by
another story about biblical illiteracy in high places. Sure, saying that "God
wants to see us help ourselves by putting people back to work" takes Obama uncomfortably
close to "Jesus told me to tell you he'd vote for this bill if he could!"
territory. But whatever else this moment was, it was an impressive bit of
rhetoric.

While "God helps those who
help themselves" is grammatically plural, it's typically
invoked as implicitly singular: God helps each
person who helps his or herself. In other words, it's part of the whole
bootstraps tradition of American individualism. Using this line says nothing
explicit about government programs or collective action--remember, pith matters--but the implication is usually
pretty clear: your options include (a) prayer, (b) going out and making
something happen for yourself and (c) both. As a Christian and an American,
you're advised to try (c).

Obama, however, exploited the
fact that the actual saying is plural. God wants us (all Americans, including their government) to help ourselves (the jobless and struggling,
whether or not that includes you personally). Thus the most notorious groaner
of baptized bootstraps-ism is repurposed in support of the common good.

Not bad for a guy with
biblically illiterate senior staffers.