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Reagan's Gun-Toting Nuns

The Catholic Conflict over Cold War Human Rights Policy in Central America

In Reagan's Gun-Toting Nuns, Theresa Keeley analyzes the role of intra-Catholic conflict within the framework of US foreign policy formulation and execution during the Reagan Administration. She challenges the preponderance of scholarship on the administration that stresses the influence of evangelical Protestants on foreign policy toward Latin America. Especially in the case of US engagement in El Salvador and Nicaragua, Keeley argues, the bitter debate among US and Central American Catholics over the direction of the Catholic Church shaped President Ronald Reagan's foreign policy.

The flash-point for these intra-Catholic disputes was the December 1980 political murder of four American Catholic missionaries in El Salvador: Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Ursuline Dorothy Kazel, and lay missionary Jean Donovan. Liberal Catholics described nuns and priests in Central America who worked to combat structural inequality as human rights advocates living out the Gospel's spirit. Conservative Catholics, by contrast, saw them as agents of class conflict who furthered the so-called Gospel according to Karl Marx. The debate was an old one among Catholics, especially after Vatican II and liberation theology's growth. But, as Reagan's Gun-Toting Nuns contends, the intra-Catholic debate intensified as conservative, anticommunist Catholics played instrumental roles in crafting U.S. policy to fund the Salvadoran government and the Nicaraguan contras.

Reagan's Gun-Toting Nuns describes the religious actors as human rights advocates and, against prevailing understandings of the fundamentally secular activism related to human rights, highlighting religious-inspired activism during the Cold War. In charting of the rightward development of American Catholicism, Keeley provides a new chapter in the history of US diplomacy and shows how domestic issues such as contraception and abortion joined with foreign policy matters to shift Catholic laity toward Republican policies at home and abroad.

Author Information

Theresa Keeley is Assistant Professor of US and the World at the University of Louisville.


William Michael Schmidli, Leiden University, author of  The Fate of Freedom Elsewhere:

"Theresa Keeley deftly examines archival material ranging from presidential libraries to religious organizations' records, offering a fresh approach to U.S. interventionism.  In an innovative analysis that integrates U.S. foreign relations, religion, gender, and competing ideas about development, Reagan's Gun-Toting Nuns convincingly demonstrates the centrality of intra-Catholic debates in shaping U.S. policy toward Central America during the Cold War."

Virginia Garrard, University of Texas, co-author of Latin America and the Modern World:

"I'd been waiting years for a book like this. In Reagan's Gun-Toting Nuns Theresa Keeley provides an enormously important take on the Central American conflict and its impact. Her precise snapshots of what socially engaged Christianity really looked like in the 1970s and 1980s are invaluable."

Audience: General/trade;