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