The Last Temptation of Elise Stefanik
Can someone be on the straight and narrow and become tempted to take a darker path?
For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
“Moral cowardice that keeps us from speaking our minds is as dangerous to this country as irresponsible talk. The right way is not always the popular and easy way. Standing for right when it is unpopular is a true test of moral character.”
-Margaret Chase Smith (former Republican Senator from Maine)
Is character something that can be corrupted? Can someone be on the straight and narrow and become tempted to take a darker path? Or is character revealed by situations? Are the people who have become craven always been like that?
As Liz Cheney comes closer to being kicked off from House leadership for telling the truth about the January 6 insurrection, speculation has focused on New York representative Elise Stefanik. She has been endorsed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and former President Donald Trump to chair the House Republican Conference. Stefanik’s rise is a study in character or in this case, lack thereof. She is a reminder of how the 45th President corrupts or reveals GOP pols.
And that is the question here. Was Stefanik always someone that would support the “Big Lie” that Trump and other Republicans are pedaling? Or did she make one compromise at a time until she became a MAGA Queen?
Stefanik was someone that I thought might be the future hope of the GOP. She was a moderate that seemed to oppose the President and pushed for more GOP women to run for Congress. Many NeverTrumpers saw her as someone that was an example of bravery in the face of moral turpitude.
So, what happened? Did she become compromised or is this who she was?
These days, it is quite common to think of the latter. Psychologist Adam Grant thinks that power doesn’t always corrupt to borrow Lord Acton’s phrase, but it always reveals. Writing in a 2019 op-ed, he believes power shows us who this person was all along:
“Power doesn’t always corrupt,” author Robert Caro has said, reflecting on Lyndon B. Johnson. “Power always reveals. When you have enough power to do what you always wanted to do, then you see what the guy always wanted to do.”When we claim that power corrupts, we let powerful people off the hook. How you use authority reveals your character: Selfish leaders hoard power for personal gain. Servant leaders share power for social good. And the ultimate test of character for people in power is how they treat people who lack it.
Looking at Stefanik, that would mean she has always been opportunistic, ready to drop her beliefs at a moment’s notice. But that’s not how people saw her growing up as this Time Magazine article describes:
If you ask Stefanik’s childhood classmates what she was like as a girl, two words keep coming up: “integrity” and “ambition.” Growing up in upstate New York, Stefanik was friendly with Melissa DeRosa, now an embattled senior aide to scandal-plagued Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo. Both served in student government at the Albany Academy for Girls. In middle school, they teamed up to pressure administrators to install a snack machine……After high school, Stefanik went to Harvard, becoming the first in her immediate family to earn a college degree. Stefanik was one of few conservative women at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, but fellow campus politicos told me they admired her sharp reasoning, intellectual integrity and willingness to stick to her positions, even when they were unpopular on a liberal-leaning campus.
Integrity. If it came up once, you would think she really wasn’t someone with integrity. But it’s said over and over again. Now either all of these people who described Stefanik were liars or she really was someone of integrity. I tend to think she was someone that at one time believed in ethics, but she no longer does anymore. She changed.
It’s also important to look at that other word that describes her: ambition. Ambition can be good: it can force you to be better than you were and to reach for your goals and maybe even beyond them. But ambition is defined as “an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power.” The desire or love of power can lead someone to great heights, but it can also poison your soul. I think it’s her ambition that is key to understanding Stefanik’s downfall. I don’t think she was always the person she is now, but her love of power did make her choose to pick a route that more easily led to power and in that moment she made the decision to take power at all costs.
Elise Stefanik started out as a NeverTrumper politician that voted against the President over and over. She voted against the 2017 Tax Cuts. She voted against the emergency authorization to build the wall on the Mexican border. But I think as she looked at the future, she could tell that there was no future in opposing Trump. 2018 saw many Trump critics losing their seats. If you’re an ambitious person that has a desire for power there is going to be a deep temptation to take the route that will give you what you want. All you have to do is give up your soul.
As a pastor, I am familiar with the Christian concept of Original Sin. This concept says that all of us, you and I are imperfect. We have a propensity for sin.
The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church describes Original Sin in this way:
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.
So, people become corrupted not by power, but by the love of power. This corruption can happen to anybody because at least from the Christian worldview, we are corrupted and inclined toward sin.
I don’t think that Stefanik has always been conniving and willing to lie. Adam Grant might think people are either saints or sinners, but the reality is that most people are both. We are complex beings that can be capable of acts of generosity and also acts of inaction, willingness to go along, or even acts of evil. I remember my Lutheran professors in seminary telling us that humans are “Simul Justus Et Peccator” which is Latin for “simultaneously saint and sinner. When it comes to Elise Stefanik, I think she was a person of integrity. But she came to a point where she saw there was no future in Never Trump and decided to throw her lot with the President. She is now more famous than she ever was as a critic. One can be a person of integrity until they are not.
Does power reveal or corrupt? I don’t know, but I do think that corruption doesn’t happen all at once. Instead, it happens, with every choice one makes. We are born with a propensity to sin, but for sin to matter, we have to make a choice each and every time.
That’s what Elsie Stefanik did. She has made one choice after another because of her love of power.
Margaret Chase Smith, a US Senator from Maine was willing to face Joseph McCarthy as he went chasing Communist ghosts. She was willing to publicly challenge the Wisconsin Senator, at a time when other Senators wouldn’t dare to speak up. She was willing to stand up for the truth even if it came at a cost. The same could be said of Liz Cheney who is telling the truth and that devotion for truth is coming at a steep cost.
Elise Stefanik was someone that was a person of integrity, but she was also a person of ambition. She made choices, one at a time until she became a loyal supporter of Trump.
Power didn’t corrupt Elise Stefanik. It was the love of power that brought her down.
Every one of us is susceptible to temptation. There aren’t people who are always saints and those who are always sinners. We all have the power to make choices. Stefanik chose to lose her soul, to corrupt herself. In our own lives, let us learn to not make the same choices.
Originally published at https://ordinary-times.com on May 12, 2021.