When he left office two years ago, it seemed unlikely that Mark Sanford’s future would hold another successful bid for elected office. Since 2009, when the former governor of South Carolina was caught in a sensational lie about his marital infidelity, Sanford’s political death has been all but sealed. In this week’s “Figuring Faith,” I explore data on Americans’ attitudes toward politicians’ moral indiscretions, and conclude that Sanford’s recent victory in a special election for the House of Representatives seat he held in the 1990s before he was elected governor shows just how far political redemption can stretch. Meanwhile, Sanford’s recovery bodes well for Anthony Weiner, another disgraced politician who is said to be mulling a return to office.
A survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in June 2011, in the midst of the scandal that ended with Weiner’s resignation, shows that Sanford’s path to redemption among his Republican constituents was much steeper than Weiner’s will be, if he chooses to run. This is not because Americans perceive digital infidelity to be a lighter offense than other kinds of adultery. Overall, Americans do not differentiate between sexting and having an affair: nearly identical majorities say that politicians who are caught sending sexually explicit messages to someone who is not their spouse (56 percent) and politicians who cheat on their wives (57 percent) should resign from office. And for both Sanford and Weiner, their subsequent denials that infidelity took place are more damning in voters’ eyes than the indiscretions themselves: nearly 7-in-10 (68 percent) Americans say officials who lie about immoral sexual acts should resign.
Read the full column online at “Figuring Faith,” my blog at the Washington Post.