Politicians and Private Morality

June 27th, 2011

I’ve been checking out a recent survey from Public Religion Research Institute that indicates a greater willingness by Americans to give political figures a pass for sexual misdeeds than financial ones. Stated another way, more of us are tougher on bribe recipients and tax cheats than we are on philanderers and adulterers, both real and virtual. Over 90% of Americans think bribery is a serious problem for a politician, and more than 80% think the same about cheating on taxes. But that number falls to two-thirds for sex with a prostitute, two-thirds for “sexting” a non-spouse, and 72% (or 69%) for adultery (depending on whether the politician is male or female, respectively). Over 75% said that lying to cover up moral failings or sexual misdeeds was serious.

I was surprised by some of these numbers at first, but as I analyzed them, I thought of several possible explanations for the survey results:

We relate easier to sexual sin than financial impropriety. Most of us at some point have probably been tempted to some degree by an affair or other sexual sin, and we tend to cut others more slack when we can see ourselves in their shoes. Hypocrisy is practically an unpardonable sin in American culture, so we’re more likely to take a “live and let live” approach when political figures struggle with the type of private sins that more of us are vulnerable to ourselves.

We’re more likely to hold people accountable for transgressions that are perceived to be against us. When Arnold Schwarzenegger cheated on his wife, for example, most of us likely didn’t take that as personally as we would have if he’d taken a bribe. A bribe would have been widely viewed as a betrayal of public trust, while an affair was considered a betrayal of the covenant with his spouse alone.

We try to separate a person’s character from their job performance. But this makes no sense. If a public figure isn’t faithful to his or her spouse, how can we trust them to be faithful to an oath of office? Is it realistic to expect people to be more loyal to their employer than they are to their husband or wife? As taxpayers, we’re the ones who “hire” politicians. Knowing that a politician has commited adultery, yet still trusting that same person to be politically honest is naive at best.

Bill Maher, host of HBO’s Real Time, has ridiculed the American public for judging the private sex lives of its politicians. I’ve seen the same sentiment in other places, most notably in parts of the European press. As a celebrity, Maher likely views the line between someone’s personal life and public life as virtually sacrosanct -- certainly more defined than the average citizen might see it-- and that has probably had an impact on his views. And since we’re living in a reality where nearly everyone has a cell phone camera, perhaps more of us are beginning to recognize a need to clearly define such a line. Maybe we’re becoming more willing to look the other way when a politician fails in his or her personal life because, in a world that’s becoming less and less private, we subconsciously want to protect our own privacy.

That kind of empathy from voters isn’t wise, but it’s understandable.


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