Abortion and Religion: The Politics of the American Catholic Bishops
Abortion and Religion: The Politics of the American Catholic BishopsMargaret Sammon Parsons, Ph.D.Director: Stephen Schneck, Ph.D.Prior to the 1960s, the American Catholic bishops avoided political involvement unless it directly impacted the Church. Initially, the bishops' main priority for their flock was protection from anti-Catholic discrimination and assuring the nation that Catholics were loyal and patriotic Americans. After Roe v. Wade, the bishops engaged in politics more directly by denouncing the Court's decision, thus laying the foundation for decades of debate over the issue of abortion. By 1976, candidates had recognized the importance of the Catholic vote and both parties began courting the bishops. Since then, the bishops have amassed significant political leverage, primarily due to their near-singular focus on abortion. This dissertation will be the first to examine how the bishops' decision to focus primarily on abortion has been the wellspring of their increased political power. I will discuss the history of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and its political involvement through 2008. This includes an examination of the relationship between the Catholic Church and both the Democratic and Republican parties, including a discussion of the presidential elections from 1976-2008. I will also analyze the changing attitudes toward abortion among key subgroups of the American electorate. My research shows that abortion has been the critical element of the bishops' political power for several reasons: (1) abortion attracts a significant amount of attention; (2) no American bishop favors legalized abortion; (3) the bishops have not been forced to endorse one party over the other; and (4) the tactics of some bishops (i.e., denying communion) have allowed the Church to guide parishioners toward preferred candidates without explicit endorsements. While abortion has not always been a major issue for voters, it has been critical in the expansion of the bishops' political power. As leaders of a major swing-voter group, candidates recognize the bishops' influence and actively court their endorsement. Even without abortion as a major issue in an election, a pro-choice candidate still faces major hurdles in winning the bishops' approval. As was evident in the 2004 election, without agreement on abortion, no amount of agreement on other social issues will earn a candidate episcopal approval.
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