While watching the funerals this past week for both Aretha Franklin and John McCain, my thoughts turned to an often-overlooked role for Donald Trump: the President as America’s Steward.
Stewardship is a central concept in faith communities. I first came to understand its significance in the mid-80’s when, for three years in a row, I was commissioned to write the denomination-wide stewardship materials for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The English word “steward” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “stig” or “stye”, meaning an enclosure or a hall, and “wéord,” which means keeper or ward. A steward is a person who manages the property or affairs of another, who is the true owner. There is never the implication that ownership is involved in stewardship; the Sovereign God is the householder; we are to manage the gifts that God has entrusted to us.
My early understanding of stewardship was limited to the giving of tithes and offerings, annual fund-raising campaigns and other money-related matters, but I soon came to realize that stewardship extends far beyond material goods; indeed, we are to be stewards of all life.
Thirty years ago, I wrote in Called to be Disciples, “God’s grace precedes God’s command. God’s love precedes God’s law. This love, as demonstrated in the blessing, is preexistent in the God-human relationship. All commands which God makes upon us, all requirements of discipleship, spring from within the context of this love…In responsible stewardship, all we say and do grows out of our understanding of God’s blessing revealed not only in the biblical narrative, but in our own life-stories as well.” (p.4-5)
When applied to the secular realm, this all-encompassing blessing is especially important when considering the role of the President as the nation’s steward. The American people are the householder; the President is but the manager of the great talents and gifts that make up this land. He is blessed to serve, but none of it belongs to him.
The relationship between stewardship and the Presidency came to prominence in the Theodore Roosevelt era and was often used to justify American military aggression. Roosevelt believed that the President, as a “steward of the people” should take whatever action necessary for the public good unless expressly forbidden by law or the Constitution.” This, in contrast to rival William Howard Taft who believed that the president could not do anything the Constitution did not permit.
According to Roosevelt, the “owner’ of the President’s household was the American people. The fundamental character traits of a steward were integrity and trustworthiness. Since a steward managed the owner’s property, the steward must be faithful to the owner as expressed in the US Constitution, the laws of the land and societal norms that developed over generations. Today, especially with the ability of Donald Trump to dominate the airwaves—and thereby, so much of our civic discourse—presidential influence extends far beyond governance, economics and foreign policy.
There is stewardship of language, The President controls the bully pulpit and a vast communications apparatus. Content matters and is shaped from the top. Truth-telling is paramount—both in what we say to one another and in how a free press reports on the state of the nation. Currently, we seem almost to have lost once-common phrases of forgiveness, fairness and human dignity. How is the President managing the stewardship of language on behalf of the American people?
and stewardship of tone. How does the President encourage us to be gracious to one another, especially to those who suffer hardship or to people of color? Are we generous toward refugees? Toward those in need of health care? How do we treat families who have sought asylum on our southern border? Those in Puerto Rico devastated by Hurricane Maria? What example does he set on social media? At Senator John McCain’s funeral, a recurring lament was how we have lost civility, especially when we differ with one another. How has the steward who is our President managed these aspects of our collective conversation?
There is stewardship of community, Is the American experience more interwoven than before or have we been driven further apart into our respective silos? In our increasingly complex world, are we surviving the struggle to keep families and neighborhoods together? How has our presidential steward empowered us to be welcoming and supportive of one another?
and stewardship of justice. How are we doing on the world stage? Are we that beacon of love and leadership, joy and justice that has historically marked our nation? What role does mercy play? How do other countries—both allies and adversaries—measure us against Roosevelt’s fundamental characteristics of integrity and trust?
There is stewardship of the earth—How has this administration managed the challenges of protecting our environment, not only for the sake of future generations, but simply for the value of the earth itself—its beauty, its bio-diversity, its sustaining power, and its fragile ecosystems?
and there is the stewardship of creativity as captured so brilliantly in On Imagination, a poem by Phillis Wheatley, the first African American female poet published in the US (in 1773!), and echoed last week in the music of Aretha Franklin and the line-up of talent at her funeral. How many missed opportunities have we had as we fail to challenge our nation’s limitless capacity to dream, to imagine, to seek innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing problems? How much stronger would we be if we built a climate where creative acts were not viewed as frivolous, but as expressions of patriotism and hard work, inspiring us all to be more than we have ever been before?
How different our world might be if America’s President saw himself as America’s Steward.