God helps those who correctly quote Scripture

The other day, President Obama did a campaign event where he called out Republicans for reaffirming the country’s motto (“In God We Trust”) instead of voting on a portion of his latest legislative proposal. He claimed that “God wants to see us help ourselves by putting people back to work.”

It’s first worth noting how frequently politicians of all stripes invoke God or claim to know what he wants. It’s also worth noting how that gets written up in the media. I’ve ranted before about how President Obama’s articulation of his Christian faith is not highlighted (until the media are alarmed by polls showing that Americans have no idea what religion he is). At the same time, other candidates walk within 1,500 feet of a house of worship and we get investigative pieces on what happened at the ladies bake sale the Tuesday prior. It’s just weird.

Anyway, this mention did get some coverage. You can watch the relevant portion embedded in the video here. Here’s how Politico‘s piece began:

President Barack Obama had his religious references down Wednesday, but press secretary Jay Carney stumbled a bit.

The invocations of God began in the morning, when Obama appeared at the Key Bridge in Washington to urge passage of provisions in his jobs bill that would support construction and infrastructure repair.

Obama went on to criticize the House of Representatives for spending time voting on a measure to reaffirm “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the United States.

“I trust in God,” Obama said, “but God wants to see us help ourselves by putting people back to work.”

A few hours later, an Associated Press reporter questioned Carney at his daily briefing about the president’s choice of words.

“Isn’t it a bit much to bring God into the jobs debate?” the reporter asked.

Carney responded: “I believe that the phrase from the Bible is, ‘The Lord helps those who help themselves.’”

The only problem: Carney had the wrong source.

I have but one question about this lengthy excerpt: What does the first sentence mean? I get that Jay Carney “stumbled a bit,” by which the reporter means “was completely wrong about whether the Bible includes a verse about God helping those who help themselves.” But in what way did President Obama have “his religious references down”? I would criticize it but I just don’t know what that means. Is Politico arguing that President Obama accurately conveyed God’s desires? And, if so, based on what? Or what am I missing?

Now, my pastor has mentioned in a sermon in recent years his own pet peeve with people misattributing this phrase as divinely inspired (he likes to point out Scripture verses that suggest God takes care of even us sinners who aren’t helping ourselves). But the first thing I thought of when I heard the line from President Obama and his press secretary was this CNN story about quotes people wrongly attribute to the Bible. Conveniently headlined, “Actually, that’s not in the Bible,” I described the article as “a really fun but substantive read on a major issue affecting religious adherents and society in general.”

Reporter John Blake had begun his story with the precise example that Carney later mistakenly uttered. So he revisited his piece, with an emphasis on Carney’s words.

But while I do get that this misattribution is a problem, I was much more interested in what President Obama had to say. Who cares, really, if a press secretary is a heathen with not even a baseline knowledge of Scripture? I assume that describes all people in public relations. (Kidding!) But what about what Obama said about God’s desire? Isn’t that interesting, too?

I thought Agence France Presse did a good job with how it handled the news in a piece headlined “Obama: God backs jobs plan.” Here’s the lede:

President Barack Obama Wednesday said even God wanted to put Americans back to work, invoking divine blessing for his joust with Republicans over measures designed to slice into high unemployment.

Just a straightforward description of what happened. Nicely done.

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  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Good points, Mollie. Obama’s points were more important, but it seemed that Jay Carney’s assumption highlighted the issue even more. Is that idea, that God wants us to help ourselves, a biblical idea if it’s not found in the Bible? I thought it was kind of interesting that a former Time Mag bureau chief would make that assumption. I also wonder how many White House reporters recognized that right away. It was interesting to me that his quote came out of a question from a reporter who asked, “Isn’t it a bit much to bring God into the jobs debate?” I would like to see more discussion on the theology behind something like, “God wants to see us help ourselves by putting people back to work.”

  • Jettboy

    If this was a republican who “brought God into the debate” (like George W. Bush) the MSM would be calling out fears of Theocracy! Atheists would be coming out of the woodwork (ok, maybe one or two of the usual suspects) and screaming “Separation of Church and State” (an interpretation of the Constitution and not actually in the Constitution) while bringing lawsuits to every conceivable judge. Reporters would be infatuated with Church and State issues, writing long reports about historical struggles of atheists to be “protected” from the religious scum.

    Of course, this is O-bammy we are talking about, so nothing to see here. Move along. Move along. No one believes he actually believes in a God anyway.

  • Will

    It’s from AESOP! The fable of Hercules and the Carter.

    Is it off-topic if I point out that Shakespeare does not refer to “gilding the lily”, and Holmes did not say “Boston is the hub of the universe”?

    Apparently essential for newsroom use is Boller and George THEY NEVER SAID IT: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions.

  • Jim

    I appreciate your point that the President gets no respect, even when he is quoting the Bible (with accurate sentiment if not exact words) and he is bringing morality into the public debate. We have seen that money changers who have taken down our economy have no morality, and we the people have the power to overturn their tables.

  • John M.

    Mollie,

    I wonder if “President Barack Obama had his religious references down Wednesday” is a funny way of saying, “President Barack Obama said something religious Wednesday.” Or maybe the author is calling out the fact that Obama, unlike Carney, didn’t attribute that quote to the Bible?

    I will say that I consider that aphorism the most ironic Bible misattribution.

    -John

  • mattk

    Will (3), not only is the saying that God helps those who help themselves not in the Bible, as you point out, from Aesop, but the very idea is un-Christian. It seems to me that anyone even a little bit aware of Christian dogma would know that Christians hold that God helps those who are utterly helpless, and sowers mercy on those who deserve no mercy. Contrast this with the pagan idea of the gods helping those who help themselves as described by Aesop, And the giving of mercy to those who have pleased Odysseus, as written by Homer. Not only does it seem that people in the White House and some people in the press do not know Christianity, but they do not know Paganism. Surely, if they were familiar with either Pagan or Christian ideas they would recognize when something disagrees with them.


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