The Corner

Benjamin Franklin

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.”

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg View, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

Most Popular


The Dominant-Sport Theory of American Politics

I think it’s safe to assert that President Trump has an unfortunate tendency to do and say (and tweet) embarrassing things. When he does, we all join in the condemnation, and often it’s not so much for the substance as for the style. The president of the United States should be dignified, measured, slow to ... Read More

Why Does Russia Build So Many Doomsday Weapons?

While America’s ruling and chattering classes were chasing Moose and Squirrel, back on planet Earth the Russians have been busy building a doomsday bomb. As Vladimir Putin alluded to in his March 1 address to the Federal Assembly, the Russians have developed, among other “superweapons,” a Doomsday ... Read More

Enoch Powell’s Immigration Speech, 50 Years Later

The 20th of this month marks a significant anniversary in Britain. For it is the 50th anniversary of what is probably the most famous -- and certainly the most notorious -- speech by any mainstream politician since the war. On April 20, 1968, Enoch Powell gave a speech to the Conservative Political Centre in ... Read More
Economy & Business

A Trump Trade and Economic Doctrine

If the Treasury Department’s recent semiannual report is any guide, the Trump administration still doesn’t quite get it when it comes to trade imbalances. “The US government has all the tools it needs to achieve balanced trade without risking a trade war,” writes Joseph Gagnon for the Peterson Institute ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Comey–Trump Dance

I never thought the Comey book would make much news for the simple reason that it would be outrageous if it did. If Comey knew something relevant and important about the Russia investigation that we didn’t already know, he couldn’t possibly put it in his book. Let’s say he did have something big on the ... Read More