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How public figures' infidelity affects the people they serve

POSTED: April 18, 2017 10:41 a.m.
Scandal in the personal lives of politicians is always big news — even when the scandal is that a leader has gone to great lengths to stay out of trouble.

For example, Vice President Mike Pence made headlines last month when a 2002 interview with The Hill resurfaced in which he'd said he avoids being alone in a room with a woman who isn't his wife.

Pence isn't the first politician to shock people with strict moral boundaries. Jimmy Carter was mocked in the late 1970s for confessing to Playboy magazine that he'd committed adultery in his heart by looking at other women with lust.

On the other end of the adultery spectrum, leaders like Bill Clinton, John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer suffered major political setbacks in the wake of revelations about sexual affairs. The ensuing news reports, denials and eventual admissions overwhelmed and, in the case of Edwards and Spitzer, ruined their political careers.

Although few public figures escape media coverage of their relationships unscathed, many voters say infidelity won't affect their choice on the ballot. More than half of Americans (54 percent) say an extramarital affair in a presidential candidate's past "wouldn't matter" to their decision about who to support, according to a new Deseret News survey on attitudes about adultery.

The biggest surprise in the new survey is that the views of Republicans and Democrats shifted dramatically over the past year on whether a presidential candidate's past indiscretions would affect their willingness to support him or her.

Today, 57 percent of Republicans say it wouldn't affect their vote if a presidential candidate had an extramarital affair in the past, compared to 47 percent of Democrats. In January 2016, the figures were nearly reversed, with 48 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of Democrats saying it wouldn't matter, the survey reported.

This potential "Trump-effect" was visible among white evangelicals, the survey reported. In January 2016, 56 percent of members of this faith community said a past affair would make them "less likely" to vote for a presidential candidate, but that figure had dropped to 45 percent by March 2017.

The Deseret News poll was conducted by Y2 Analytics and YouGov from March 17-19. It includes responses from 1,000 U.S. adults, an oversample of 250 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and has a margin of error of 3.1 percent. The survey is a key component to the Deseret News' annual Ten Today project exploring the relevance of the Ten Commandments in modern life.

The lesson of the new survey is that past sexual affairs aren't insurmountable. Now-president Donald Trump overcame the leak of a tape in which he described groping women without their permission and went on to win the election, earning 8 in 10 votes from white evangelicals.

It's natural for society's views on infidelity to shift over time and for people to justify a political leader's cheating if they like his or her other traits, according to psychologists and other experts on scandal. But, they also said Americans would benefit from a deeper understanding of how a leader's extramarital affair could affect their own well-being.

When politicians, pastors and other leaders act against the expectation of marital fidelity, they threaten not only their own careers, but also the emotional health of the people they serve, said Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

"Whenever you're put in a position of trust, then I think there is an expectation that you're going to live your life in a way that fits with the trust that's been placed in you," he said.

Rather than grow numb to reports of high-profile affairs, people should try to understand how a leader's infidelity affects public trust and professional integrity. And public figures should learn how to recognize and respond to red flags before they do something everyone will regret, said Kate Ott, a professor of Christian social ethics at Drew University.

"There are a lot of choices that come before having an affair," she said.

Broad consequences

The fallout from public figures' infidelity is rarely limited to close personal and professional connections, scholars said. A leader's affair can impact how the people they serve behave in the future, as well as who these voters or church members trust.

Niki Atkinson was still in middle school when she started paying attention to politics. A close friend's mom served in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, and Atkinson helped hand out her re-election fliers.

It wasn't until she was in her mid-20s that she found a presidential candidate she really liked. Democrat John Edwards seemed to share her political goals, as well as her personal values.

"He stuck out to me as this very family-oriented man," said Atkinson, now 34.

She was shocked to hear he'd cheated on his wife and even more disgusted to learn it was while she was receiving treatments for cancer. From Atkinson's perspective, all of politics seemed tainted by his betrayal, leading her to give up on politics for a while.

"It was kind of a jarring experience," she said.

Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, said Atkinson is not alone in having this reaction. Each new discovery of a politician having an affair erodes public trust, a development that holds implications for even those leaders who will never cheat.

"When you catch a politician who's lying about an affair, it reaffirms the completely false belief that all politicians are scumbags," said Dagnes, who edited the book, "Sex Scandals in American Politics."

She linked increased press coverage of political infidelity over the last few decades to a growing distaste for politicians. In 2016, 56 percent of U.S. adults had a "great deal" or "fair amount" of trust in the country's political leaders, compared to 86 percent 40 years earlier, according to Gallup.

A similar kind of decline in trust can occur in religious settings when church members learn of a leader's affair, Ott said.

"I've seen lots of kids in middle and high school who, if that happens, think all adults are lying about what they've been taught," she said.

In addition to impacting their followers' trust levels, a leader's infidelity has broader emotional implications.

"There's initially a grieving process," Markman said. Affected individuals feel duped and overwhelmed by how to work through their anger and confusion.

Similarly, Ott highlighted the potential for people to conclude that everything related to the cheater has been spoiled.

"Things come into question that have nothing to do with the affair," she said. "People ask, 'Has this person lied to us about the budget?'"

In a religious setting, this line of thinking leads to spiritually devastating places, Ott added. A pastor's affair can shake someone's faith.

"It can do severe damage to people's notions of God and of the church," she said. "Many members leave the church completely."

Professional fallout

Public leaders are human beings like the rest of us, so it's no surprise affairs happen within the ranks of politicians and even religious leaders, experts said. High-profile jobs strain marriages and create power imbalances, both of which can contribute to the temptation to cheat.

"Relationships can go sour when somebody is in a difficult job. They may spend less time working on their relationship and more time working," Markman said. "People who have success in the workplace are also often seen as more desirable by other people."

However, increased opportunities to cheat and trouble at home don't automatically lead to an affair, he added. Adultery is a choice and, for public leaders, there are plenty of incentives to just say no.

Leaders can still expect to be punished publicly for adultery, from losing their job to losing the respect of friends and colleagues.

One in four Protestant pastors (24 percent) say a preacher who has had an affair should permanently withdraw from public ministry, according to a May 2016 LifeWay Research survey. Thirty-one percent say a cheater should step down for between three months and a year.

For pastors, certain moral standards are part of the job description, Ott said.

"It's completely appropriate that there be professional repercussions when someone breaks ethical rules or policy-based rules," she said.

For politicians, the consequences of an affair are less clear.

Robert Bentley, the former Republican governor of Alabama, was forced to resign April 10 after pleading guilty to abusing the powers of his office to hide his affair with a female staffer. But if cheating politicians don't run afoul of the law in committing adultery, they can usually keep their jobs.

However, political opponents will use the publicly humiliating situation to their advantage, and the 24-hour news cycle ensures the offending official's personal and professional life will be all over computer and television screens for as long as reader and viewer interest in the story lasts.

Overall, 4 in 10 Americans say they'd be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who had an affair, and this figure is higher among some faith groups. Half of mainline Protestants (50 percent), 43 percent of evangelicals and 62 percent of Mormons would be less likely to vote for a cheater, the Deseret News survey reported.

Another, more subtle professional consequence of adultery is losing your ability to do your job to your full potential, experts said.

Politicians who cheat put themselves at risk for blackmail and other obstacles, especially when they're serving at the national level, said David Eisenbach, a lecturer in history at Columbia University. He recalled that John F. Kennedy's tryst with a German prostitute held consequences for the Civil Rights Movement.

"(FBI director) J. Edgar Hoover found out about the rendezvous and basically blackmailed Kennedy into giving permission for a wiretap of Martin Luther King," Eisenbach said.

The Clinton scandal is a better-known example of this type of backlash.

"What's really disturbing to me is how occupied the president was by the impeachment process and scandal," Eisenbach said, noting that some people have argued Clinton likely chose not to bomb Al Qaeda in Afghanistan out of fear he would be accused of trying to shift the spotlight off himself.

Similarly, William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies with the Brookings Institution, said Clinton's Oval Office infidelity "derailed a significant portion of the president's second-term agenda." It distracted from public policy plans, forced parents to have uncomfortable conversations with their kids about oral sex and affected America's international reputation.

"We all paid a price," he said.

Safeguarding morality

Individual leaders obviously shoulder the burden of avoiding affairs, but, as the Pence debacle illustrated, even the most conservative approaches can cause controversy. By following a so-called Billy Graham rule — named after the famous Christian evangelist who popularized the tactic — Pence may have unintentionally kept female staffers from receiving one-on-one mentorship, critics argued.

In general, hard-and-fast boundaries, like refusing to meet with someone of the opposite gender without another person around, can stand in the way of some job duties, such as when a pastor declines to meet privately with parishioners.

Additionally, these kinds of rules of conduct present sexual attraction like it's impossible to resist, Ott said, noting it's more beneficial to learn how to deal with those emotions when they arise. She advocates for healthy conversations — whether in the workplace or in a seminary classroom — about drawing appropriate boundaries.

"You need a robust understanding of your own sexuality and sexual health, as well as an understanding of professional ethics," she said.

The first step in these conversations is to acknowledge that no one is perfect, said Ott, who leads sexual ethics trainings for seminary students.

"Part of what I'm trying to do in boundaries training is to admit, from the start, that we're going to cross boundaries and make mistakes," she said. "It's about getting better at recognizing those (red flags)."

Some scandal experts argue we shouldn't punish people for indiscretions that aren't directly related to their job.

For example, Eisenbach argued the way to prevent future chaos like the Clinton scandal is to not overreact when politicans cheat on their spouses.

"The presidency cannot afford to be preoccupied by silliness," he said.

Galston agreed a public figure's affair shouldn't be allowed to turn into a media circus but argued that accountability and a reasonable punishment is a necessary part of moving forward.

"If a president does something, and he isn't called to account for it, many other people draw an inference that, that conduct is perfectly OK. It's normalized," he said.

Potential punishments aside, it's important for people affected by an affair to overcome the initial instinct to toss out anything they've learned from or loved about the leader who cheated, Markman said. Human beings are complex, and just because someone cheated on a spouse doesn't automatically mean that person would lie in other contexts.

"Human relationships are complicated, and there are lots of things that go into someone's decision to have an affair," he said. "Those factors need not be related to what goes into someone's decision to be conscientious in the performance of their job."

Part of human complexity includes having feelings you don't want, such as an attraction to a coworker or parishioner, Ott said. However, our brains also enable us to stop our bodies from taking action on an unwelcome impulse and to keep saying no, until the temptation fades.

"My mentor used to say that if she could teach politicians one thing, it would be to think 'Huh! That's a cute intern, and then walk away,'" she said. "You can have sexual attraction for someone and not act on it."

In any leadership setting, people must learn to separate personal desires from professional needs, and then ensure the former does not sabotage the latter, Ott said.

Although she still gets frustrated thinking about John Edwards from time to time, Atkinson has embraced opportunities to prove strong leadership is still possible. As associate pastor for youth and education ministries at First Presbyterian Church of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, she has spent the past 12 years helping shape the religious lives of young people and takes morality-related job requirements seriously.

As a minister, "you live in a fishbowl," she said. "Particularly when you're working with children and teenagers, it's like your actions are magnified."

She got married last year, and she's excited to continue growing as a leader with her husband by her side.

"Morally, I have an obligation to show these kids that, if you're going to say that you're a Christian, you need to look at scripture and follow what it says," she said.

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