The Common Good

Awkward: Obama's Press Secretary Corrects the Boss, Invents Bible Verse

He meant well.

It sounded right.

But it was ... wrong.

Poor White House spokesman Jay Carney misquoted -- invented, actually -- a Bible verse during a press conference yesterday and he's catching hell for it.

Before you cast the first stone, however, you might want to read to the end.

You, too, may be a victim of quoting the dreaded "phantom scripture"...

MR. CARNEY: Well, I believe the phrase from the Bible is, "The Lord helps those who help themselves." And I think the point the President is making is that we should -- we have it within our capacity to do the things to help the American people.

For context, here's what Obama said earlier in the day that Carney was trying to "correct":

"God helps those who help themselves," is, unfortunately for Mr. Carney, NOT in the Bible.

Rather it's an oft-quoted aphorism that sounds like it should be in the Bible but isn't. A "phantom scripture," if you will.

In a post on CNN.com's religion blog earlier this year, reporter John Blake explored these phantom passages, which also include the sayings:

"Spare the rod, spoil the child"
"This, too, shall pass."
"God works in mysterious ways."
"Cleanliness is next to Godliness."

As for Crawford's misquote (of biblical proportions), Blake reported:

Getting biblical scriptures and stories wrong may not seem significant, but it can become dangerous, one scholar says.

Most people have heard this one: "God helps those that help themselves." It's another phantom scripture that appears nowhere in the Bible, but many people think it does. It's actually attributed to Benjamin Franklin, one of the nation's founding fathers.

The passage is popular in part because it is a reflection of cherished American values: individual liberty and self-reliance, says Sidnie White Crawford, a religious studies scholar at the University of Nebraska.

Yet that passage contradicts the biblical definition of goodness: defining one's worth by what one does for others, like the poor and the outcast, Crawford says.

Crawford cites a scripture from Leviticus that tells people that when they harvest the land, they should leave some "for the poor and the alien" (Leviticus 19:9-10), and another passage from Deuteronomy that declares that people should not be "tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor."

"We often infect the Bible with our own values and morals, not asking what the Bible's values and morals really are," Crawford says.

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of Social Media for Sojourners. Her latest book, BELIEBER!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber," was published last month. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl

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