Yesterday, during a picturesque event at the Georgetown Waterfront Park beneath the Key Bridge that spans the Potomac River, President Obama drew attention to congressional inaction on his most recent economic stimulus proposal, which includes money for infrastructure such as the Washington area's rundown bridges.
Quoting Ronald Reagan and invoking Abraham Lincoln, the president needled Congress for spending its time debating symbolic measures rather than substantive ones.
Turning to Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., Obama said, "In the House of Representatives, what have you guys been debating? John, you've been debating a commemorative coin for baseball? You had legislation reaffirming that 'In God We Trust' is our motto? That's not putting people back to work. I trust in God, but God wants to see us help ourselves by putting people back to work."
It was a good line, but the media being the media, Jay Carney was asked at his daily briefing, "Isn't it a bit much to bring God into the jobs debate?"
Carney's answer was that the president was making a larger point, but he prefaced his reply with this aside: "Well, I believe the phrase from the Bible is, 'The Lord helps those who help themselves.'"
As the White House transcript forthrightly noted with an asterisk, that line is neither in the Old Testament nor the New. For those with a historical ear, it sounds more like Benjamin Franklin than Jesus of Nazareth, and, sure enough, the following line was in the 1736 version of Poor Richard's Almanack: "God helps them that helps themselves."
It's supposed to be cheeky, which Franklin often was, although he wasn't the first to fool around with this idea.
In 1668, French theologian-turned-writer Jean de la Fontaine turned out his collection of fables, one of which was: "Help yourself, and heaven will help you." And according to the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, variations on this point date back as far as Aeschylus, a Greek writer of tragedies born five centuries B.C., who is credited with this thought: "God likes to assist the man who toils."
I've known Jay Carney for a while -- we covered the Clinton White House together, for different news organizations -- and I'm sure he winced when he realized his slip-up. But in the spirit of mutual cooperation between the Fourth Estate and those who toil in government, here is a handy guide for future reference:
Not in the Bible: He who has the gold makes the rules.
In the Bible: So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.
Not in the Bible: Money is the root of all evil.
In the Bible: For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.
Not in the Bible: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."
In the Bible: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."
This last quote is from Jesus, given in response to those who were trying to trap him, and is used even today by those on either side of our great debates about taxation.
But as Marcus Borg wrote on Beliefnet, this biblical text doesn't offer much guidance for fiscal policy, and this week, the world's leaders are meeting in Europe to wrestle with the same fiscal problems faced by the ancient Romans:
How much to spend? How much to tax?