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

PC Culture

‘White Women’ Becomes a Disparaging Term

Using “white men” as a putdown is no longer extreme enough for the Left. Now it is moving on to doing the same for “white women.” How rapidly this transpired. It was less than two years ago that the approximately 98.7 percent of white women working in media who were openly rooting for Hillary Clinton ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The World Keeps Not Ending

We were not supposed to have made it this far. George Orwell saw night descending on us in 1984. Orwell was, on paper, a radical, but in his heart he was an old-fashioned English liberal. He dreamed of socialism but feared socialists. He feared them because he knew them. I was in the sixth grade in 1984, but I ... Read More

A Free People Must Be Virtuous

Dear Reader (Even those of you who didn’t seem to notice or care that I failed to file this “news”letter on Friday), So I’m sitting here at Gate C6 at O’Hare waiting for my flight home. I am weary, pressed for time, in desperate need of a shower, and filled with a great sense of dread for the work ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Beatification of Beto

The media’s treatment of Texas Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke wasn’t the most egregiously unfair coverage of the past year -- that would be the treatment of Brett Kavanaugh -- but it ranks among 2018’s most annoying. The endless glowing profiles of O’Rourke in every publication from Vanity Fair to ... Read More