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.
The findings, released June 22 in a detailed survey by the Public Religion Research
Institute, show that Americans across religious groups 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.
“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 10 Americans say it’s an “extremely” or “very serious” moral
problem for a public official to take a bribe, and more than eight in 10 say
the same for a politician who cheats on taxes.
But less than seven in 10 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 U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner,
D-N.Y., who resigned after he lied about sexually explicit texts he sent to
women he met online.
The poll 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. This is rated more serious
than sexual misbehavior.”
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, however, 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 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:
(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
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.
than six in 10 Americans say public officials should be held to a higher moral
standard than people in other professions.
two-thirds of respondents say the moral behavior of politicians is about the
same today as in the past, with 28 percent deeming it worse and 6 percent
considering it better.
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.
poll, conducted by PRRI in partnership with Religion News Service, is based on
telephone interviews with 1,006 U.S.
adults between June 16 and 19, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3