Liberals have been making a lot out of this bit from a recent Bill McKibben essay in Harper’s: “Here is a statistic that does matter: Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. 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.”
Parts of this passage were quoted in a recent homily at my church. It’s also quoted in Melinda Henneberger’s latest attempt to recruit the Lord as a partisan of the welfare state.
But it seems to me that the Franklin quote can be interpreted in a more charitable way. McKibben seems to think that Franklin is expressing support for a sort of Social Darwinism: that he is saying that if people are doing poorly, it’s because they have not helped themselves, and we owe them nothing.
I read the quote as a corrective to a kind of fatalism that can tempt religious believers. It is a corrective, that is, to the idea that we don’t need to do anything because God will provide. The Franklin quote is a reminder that one of the ways God provides for us is by giving us (or in some way arranging for us to have) whatever faculties we have to help ourselves. It’s a summons to get off the couch; and while I am less familiar with the Bible than I should be, the sentiment does not seem “counter-biblical.”