Skip to main content

Catholic Politicians and the Politics of Abortion Position Taking

  • Kathleen Marchetti (a1) and David O'Connell (a1)

Four decades after the Court's landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, the issue of abortion persists as a point of contention for elected officials. The Catholic Church has taken a leading role in the pro-life movement, putting many Catholic representatives in a difficult position as they can be cross-pressured by their party, their constituents, and their own beliefs. Given these pressures, how do Catholic legislators explain their positions on abortion? We address this question via an analysis of public statements about abortion made by Catholic representatives and senators in the 108th Congress. We examine which members comment on abortion and use automated text analysis to measure legislators' certainty and use of moral and religious terms when discussing abortion. Multivariate analysis shows that gender, ethnicity, and an interaction between a member's position on abortion and the number of Catholics in their constituency shape how Catholic legislators discuss abortion.

Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Kathleen Marchetti, Department of Political Science, Dickinson College, P. O. Box 1773, Carlisle, PA 17013. E-mail:; or to: David O'Connell, Department of Political Science, Dickinson College, P. O. Box 1773, Carlisle, PA 17013. E-mail:
Hide All

Co-authorship of the manuscript is equal and authors are listed alphabetically. The authors wish to acknowledge the valuable suggestions and feedback provided by the editor and three anonymous reviewers at Politics and Religion. In addition, the authors thank Mary Martin for her assistance with data collection for this article.

Hide All
Adams, Greg D. 1997. “Abortion: Evidence of an Issue Evolution.” American Journal of Political Science 41:718737.
Ainsworth, Scott H., and Hall, Thad E.. 2011. Abortion Politics in Congress: Strategic Incrementalism and Policy Change. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Barone, Michael, and Cohen, Richard E.. 2001. The Almanac of American Politics, 2002. Washington, DC: National Journal Group.
Barone, Michael, and Cohen, Richard E.. 2003. The Almanac of American Politics, 2004. Washington, DC: National Journal Group.
Barone, Michael, and Cohen, Richard E.. 2005. The Almanac of American Politics, 2006. Washington, DC: National Journal Group.
Barrett, Edith J., and Cook, Fay Lomax. 1991. “Congressional Attitudes and Voting Behavior: An Examination of Support for Social Welfare.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 16:375392.
Blackstone, Bethany, and Oldmixon, Elizabeth A.. 2015. “Discourse and Dissonance: Religious Agendas in the 104th Congress.” Research and Politics 3:18.
Burden, Barry C. 2007. Personal Roots of Representation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Clifford, Scott. 2016. “Individual Differences in Group Loyalty Predict Partisan Strength.” (Accessed on January 21, 2017).
Clifford, Scott, and Jerit, Jennifer. 2013. “How Words Do the Work of Politics: Moral Foundations Theory and the Debate Over Stem Cell Research.” Journal of Politics 75:659671.
Daynes, Byron W., and Tatalovich, Raymond. 1984. “Religious Influence and Congressional Voting on Abortion.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 23:197200.
Fastnow Chris, J., Grant, Tobin, and Rudolph, Thomas J.. 1999. “Holy Roll Calls: Religious Tradition and Voting Behavior in the U.S. House.” Social Science Quarterly 80:687701.
Fenno, Richard F. Jr. 1982. The United States Senate: A Bicameral Perspective. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute.
Fiorina, Morris P., Abrams, Samuel J., and Pope, Jeremy C.. 2006. Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America. New York, NY: Pearson Longman.
Gallup. 2009a. “State of the States: Importance of Religion.” (Accessed on July 27, 2017).
Gallup. 2009b. “Catholics Similar to Mainstream on Abortion, Stem Cells.” (Accessed on September 10, 2016).
Gray, Mark M., Perl, Paul M., and Bendyna, Mary E.. 2006. “Camelot Only Comes But Once? John F. Kerry and the Catholic Vote.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 36:203222.
Green, John C., and Guth, James L.. 1991. “Religion, Representatives, and Roll Calls.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 16:571584.
Grose, Christian. 2005. “Disentangling Constituency and Legislator Effects in Legislative Representation: Black Legislators or Black Districts?Social Science Quarterly 86:427443.
Guth, James L., and Kellstedt, Lyman A.. 2001. “Religion and Congress.” In In God We Trust? Religion and American Political Life, ed. Smidt, Corwin E. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Haider-Markel, Donald P. 2007. “Representation and Backlash: The Positive and Negative Influence of Descriptive Representation.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 32:107133.
Hill, Kim Quaile, and Hurley, Patricia A.. 2002. “Symbolic Speeches in the U.S. Senate and Their Representational Implications.” Journal of Politics 64:219231.
Hofstetter, C. Richard, Ayers, John W., and Perry, Robert. 2008. “The Bishops and Their Flock: John Kerry and the Case of Catholic Voters in 2004.” Politics and Religion 1:436455.
Hutchings, Vincent L., McClerking, Harwood K., and Charles, Guy-Uriel. 2004. “Congressional Representation of Black Interests: Recognizing the Importance of Stability.” Journal of Politics 66:450468.
Jelen, Ted G., and Wilcox, Clyde. 2003. “Causes and Consequences of Public Attitudes toward Abortion: A Review and Research Agenda.” Political Research Quarterly 56:489500.
Long, J. Scott. 1997. Regression Models for Categorical and Limited Dependent Variables. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing.
Maltzman, Forrest, and Sigelman, Lee. 1996. “The Politics of Talk: Unconstrained Floor Time in the U.S. House of Representatives.” Journal of Politics 58:819830.
Mansbridge, Jane. 1999. “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contigent ‘Yes.’Journal of Politics 61:628657.
McDermott, Monika L. 2007. “Voting for Catholic Candidates: The Evolution of a Stereotype.” Social Science Quarterly 88:953969.
McTague, John, and Pearson-Merkowitz, Shanna. 2015. “Thou Shalt Not Flip Flop: Senators’ Religious Affiliations and Issue Position Consistency.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 40:417440.
Mockabee, Stephen T. 2007. “The Political Behavior of American Catholics.” In From Pews to Polling Places: Faith and Politics in the American Religious Mosaic, ed. Wilson, J. Matthew. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
Morris, Jonathan. 2001. “Reexamining the Politics of Talk: Partisan Rhetoric in the 104th House.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 26:101121.
NARAL Pro-Choice America. 2003. 2003 Congressional Record on Choice. Washington, DC.
NARAL Pro-Choice America. 2004. 2004 Congressional Record on Choice. Washington, DC.
New, Michael J. 2011. “Analyzing the Effect of Anti-Abortion U.S. State Legislation in the Post-Casey Era.” State Politics & Policy Quarterly 11:2847.
Oldmixon, Elizabeth A. 2005. Uncompromising Positions: God, Sex, and the U.S. House of Representatives. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
Oldmixon, Elizabeth A., and Hudson, William. 2008. “Catholic Republicans and Conflicting Impulses in the 109th Congress.” Politics and Religion 1:113136.
Osborn, Tracy, and Mendez, Jeanette Morehouse. 2010. “Speaking as Women: Women and Floor Speeches in the Senate.” Journal of Women, Politics & Policy 31:121.
Pew Research Center. 2013. “Widening Regional Divide over Abortion Laws.” (Accessed on June 29, 2017).
Pew Research Center. 2015a. “Faith on the Hill.” (Accessed on August 24, 2016).
Pew Research Center. 2015b. “Religious Landscape Study.” (Accessed on January 5, 2017).
Prendergast, William B. 1999. The Catholic Voter in American Politics: The Passing of a Democratic Monolith. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
Putnam, Robert D., and Campbell, David E.. 2010. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Reingold, Beth. 1992. “Concepts of Representation among Female and Male State Legislators.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 17:509537.
Richardson, James T., and Fox, Sandie Wightman. 1972. “Religious Affiliation as a Predictor of Voting Behavior in Abortion Reform Legislation.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 11:347359.
Sammon, Margaret Ross. 2008. “The Politics of the U.S. Catholic Bishops.” In Catholics and Politics: The Dynamic Tension Between Faith and Power, eds., Heyer, Kristin E., Rozell, Mark J., and Genovese, Michael A.. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
Smith, Lauren Edwards, Olson, Laura R., and Fine, Jeffrey A.. 2010. “Substantive Religious Representation in the US Senate: Voting Alignment with the Family Research Council.” Political Research Quarterly 63:6882.
Swers, Michele L. 1998. “Are Women More Likely to Vote for Women's Issue Bills Than Their Male Colleagues?Legislative Studies Quarterly 23:435448.
Tatalovich, Raymond, and Schier, David. 1993. “The Persistence of Ideological Cleavage in Voting on Abortion Legislation in the House of Representatives, 1973–1988.” American Politics Quarterly 21:125139.
Tausczik, Yla R., and Pennebaker, James W.. 2010. “The Psychological Meaning of Words: LIWC and Computerized Text Analysis Methods.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology 29:2454.
University of Norte Dame. 1984. “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor's Perspective.” (Accessed on December 29, 2016).
Wakin, Daniel J. 2004. “A Divisive Issue for Catholics: Bishops, Politicians and Communion.” New York Times, May 31.
Wald, Kenneth D., and Calhoun-Brown, Allison. 2011. Religion and Politics in the United States. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Witt, Stephanie L., and Moncrief, Gary. 1993. “Religion and Roll Call Voting in Idaho: The 1990 Abortion Controversy.” American Politics Quarterly 21:140149.
Young, Neil J. 2016. We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Politics and Religion
  • ISSN: 1755-0483
  • EISSN: 1755-0491
  • URL: /core/journals/politics-and-religion
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Marchetti and O'Connell supplementary material
Marchetti and O'Connell supplementary material 1

 Word (31 KB)
31 KB


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 9
Total number of PDF views: 34 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 301 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 11th September 2017 - 22nd March 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.