Mark Sanford’s political redemption

Former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford and Argentinian fiancee Maria Belen Chapur celebrate his primary victory. (Associated Press) FIGURING FAITH … Continued

Former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford and Argentinian fiancee Maria Belen Chapur celebrate his primary victory. (Associated Press)

FIGURING FAITH | 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 admitted that his absences from the state to allegedly hike the Appalachian Trail were, in fact, trips to Argentina to carry on an extramarital affair, Sanford’s political death has been all but sealed. Sanford, however, handily won the Republican primary for the House of Representatives seat he held in the 1990s before he was elected governor. And his victory in Tuesday’s South Carolina special general election shows just how far political redemption can stretch.

Sanford’s campaign also has implications for former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, who resigned from Congress in 2011 amid a sexting scandal, and is now reportedly considering a candidacy in this year’s New York City mayoral election. Setting Sanford’s “God of second chances” aside, just how much are voters prepared to forgive?

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.

Graphic via PRRI.

But Sanford, running for reelection in a deeply conservative district, had a higher bar to clear when it came to voters’ expectations about integrity and sexual morality. Neither Republicans nor Democrats give politicians a free pass when it comes to lying or infidelity, but more than 8-in-10 (82 percent) Republicans agree that an elected official who lies to cover up an immoral sexual act should resign, compared to less than two-thirds (64 percent) of Democrats. Similarly, 7-in-10 (70 percent) Republicans agree that an elected official who cheats on his wife should resign, compared to less than 6-in-10 (59 percent) Democrats.

More on point for the question of redemption, Republicans are simply less likely than Democrats to believe that a politician who commits a moral error in his personal life can still execute his official duties in an ethical manner. While nearly half (49 percent) of Democrats agree that an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life, a majority (55 percent) of Republicans disagree.

Because his road to redemption was much steeper, Mark Sanford’s successful campaign in the Republican primary and eventual victory in the race bodes well for Weiner in the mayoral race. The data also shows that Democrats, like Americans overall, are more likely to say that financial indiscretions like taking a bribe (91 percent) should be punished with resignation, than they are to say that sexual indiscretions require vacating office. Given that the mayoral race in the Democratic stronghold of New York City has already been marred by allegations of corruption, the combination of relatively weaker concerns about the personal failings of public officials among Democrats and stronger concerns about embezzlement and bribery may spell good news for Weiner later this year.


Robert P. Jones Dr. Robert P. Jones is the CEO of Public Religion Research Institute and a leading scholar and commentator on religion, values, and public life.
  • Lummsy

    I am utterly embarrassed by people who vote someone back into office after being fined for ethics violations. What exactly are you teaching your kids? Oh, wait I know…that it is ok to lie, cheat on your wife, and take the public trust for granted…nice.

  • John McDaniel

    What a stupid column.

    Sanford’s “victory” had nothing to do with forgiveness or redemption. As was pointed out in the comments to the news story, Romney won that district by 18 points. Sanford’s victory margin was only half that.

    All Sanford’s win proves is that only about 9% of South Carolina Republicans care more about family values than about anti-tax/anti-government ideology. The rest are simply ignorant or despicable, or both.

  • nkri401

    “redemption”? What did he do to redeem himself? It’s not even like he actually went for Hiking the Appalachian trail to see what he lied about.

    This lays bare the lies and hypocrisy of Republican “Family Values”.

  • nkri401

    It’s OK only if you are a Republican because Republicans are supposed to be inherently “good”.

  • OldNavy

    We should give South Carolina back to North Carolina for this–as a punishment to both states.

  • WashingtonDame

    He repented and asked for God’s forgiveness.

  • abrooklynite

    The Weiner connection I keep reading is false equivalency. Weiner just sent pictures of his bulge. Sanford temporarily abdicated his responsibility as governor and lied about his whereabouts. Who cares about the sexual dimension of it?

  • leibowde84

    Washington Dame, is that a joke? Cuz, if it is, it’s kinda funny.

  • itsthedax

    Voters: “Mr. Sanford, you went AWOL while in office, travelled out of the country in secret, and paid for it with our money.”

    Sanford: “Yes, but I talked about it with god,. He said he forgave me and wanted me to get back in politics, and you should too.”

    Voters: “Uhhh, OK, I guess.”

  • alice-belle

    Sanford didn’t win through god’s forgiveness. He won because WRNJs can usually be depended to vote for other WRNJs no matter how sleazy or dishonest they are.

  • cricket44

    These are the same idiots who buy anything anyone says as long as they reference God every other word.

Read More Articles

Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

An Untold Story of Bondage to Freedom: Passover 1943

How a foxhole that led to a 77-mile cave system saved the lives of 38 Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust.

Friend or Foe? Learning from Judas About Friendship with Jesus

We call Judas a betrayer. Jesus called him “friend.”

Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism

The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.

Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.