Public rates politicians’ sexual, financial lapses on different moral scales

June 22, 2011

Americans are tougher on politicians for their financial misdeeds than their sexual ones, but men are more willing than women to tolerate sexual misbehavior in their elected officials.

Across different religious groups, U.S. adults consider it worse for a politician to cheat on taxes or take bribes than to commit adultery or send sexually explicit messages to someone who's not their spouse, according to a survey released June 22 by the Public Religion Research Institute.

"There's a dramatic difference when people are evaluating public officials' financial versus sexual misbehavior," said Daniel Cox, PRRI's research director. "A significant number of folks think they can separate public officials' personal and public lives" and tend to think of sexual misbehavior as personal and therefore private.

More than nine in ten Americans say it's an "extremely" or "very serious" moral problem for a public official to take a bribe, and more than eight in ten say the same for a politician who cheats on taxes. But fewer than seven in ten Americans say it's a serious moral problem for a public official to have sex with a prostitute.

The poll was conducted in the wake of several high-profile cases of politicians making headlines for their sexual behavior, including Rep. Anthony Weiner (D., N.Y.), who resigned after he admitted lying about sexually explicit texts he sent to women he met on the Internet.

The survey also showed that Ameri­cans resent politicians lying about sexual behavior more than the behavior itself. While three in four (77 percent) of those polled consider lying to cover up an immoral sexual act a serious moral problem, only two-thirds believe that a politician who has sex with a prostitute had committed a serious moral transgression.

"This is what we've been hearing about Anthony Weiner," Cox said. "He may not have done anything illegal, but he went out of his way to conceal it, and people are saying that this is what got him into trouble."

There are no significant differences, however, in Americans' views of virtual and actual sexual misconduct. Roughly two-thirds of those polled said it was a "serious moral problem" for a politician to send a sexually explicit message to someone other than a spouse or to have sex with a prostitute.

White evangelicals are more likely than other religious groups to consider immoral personal behavior a disqualification for public office: 64 percent of evangelicals said a politician who commits an immoral act in private life cannot behave ethically in public life, compared to 43 percent of white mainline Prot­estants, 49 percent of Catholics and 26 percent of the religiously unaffiliated.

Significant gender differences of opinion emerged from the poll on views of politicians' sexual behavior. Sixty-three percent of women say a politician who has sex with a prostitute should resign, compared to 46 percent of men. And 64 percent of women said that a male politician who cheats on his wife should resign, compared to 50 percent of men.

Women were somewhat less willing, however, to condemn a female politician who cheats on her husband, with 56 percent of women calling for her resignation, compared to 51 percent of men.

Other findings from the poll include:

  • Republicans (71 percent) are more likely than Democrats (53 percent) to say a politician who has sex with a prostitute should resign. Republicans and Dem­ocrats are in closer agreement on whether a politician should resign for financial improprieties.
  • Americans are split—44 to 44 percent—as to whether politicians who misbehave in their personal lives can behave ethically in their public lives. The remainder say "it depends" or are unsure.
  • More than six in ten Americans say public officials should be held to a higher moral standard than people in other professions.
  • By a margin of 54 to 33 percent, younger Americans (ages 18 to 34) are more likely than those over age 65 to believe that a politician can behave honorably in office despite a personal moral failing. —RNS