5 Questions with Theresa Keeley



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Lauren Turek

Theresa Keeley is Assistant Professor of U.S. and the World in the University of Louisville history department. She earned her Ph.D. in history from Northwestern and also has a background in human rights activism and law. An expert in the history of U.S. foreign relations, religion, and gender, she is currently revising a manuscript, Reagan’s Gun-Toting Nuns: Catholicism and U.S.-Central America Relations, based on her doctoral dissertation. In June 2016, Keeley published an excellent article entitled “Reagan’s Real Catholics vs. Tip O’Neill’s Maryknoll Nuns: Gender, Intra-Catholic Conflict, and the Contras” in Diplomatic History. The following is a brief conversation we had about her research, which straddles several fields and promises to provide the basis for an exciting, important book.


President Reagan with Tip O'Neill in the Oval Office, 1985.
Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library.
Q1. Can you tell us a little about your current book project?
I’m in the midst of revising my manuscript, Reagan’s Gun-Toting Nuns: Intra-Catholic Conflict and U.S.-Central America Relations. The book’s pivotal event is the rape and murder of three U.S. nuns and a lay missionary by members of El Salvador’s National Guard in December 1980.  I argue that the women’s murders brought to the fore long-simmering debates among Catholics over the Church’s direction.  Liberal Catholics described the women, who worked to combat structural inequality, as human rights advocates living out the spirit of the Gospel.  They were martyrs whose deaths symbolized an immoral U.S. foreign policy that trained and armed the Salvadoran security forces.  But to conservative Catholics who supported U.S. Cold War foreign policy, these women were agents of class conflict who furthered the Gospel according to Karl Marx. As I contend, this intra-Catholic debate intensified as conservative, anticommunist Catholics played instrumental roles in crafting Ronald Reagan’s policy to fund the Salvadoran government and the Nicaraguan contras.  At the same time, liberal Catholics protested against this U.S. policy.  At their heart, these intra-Catholic debates were about who could fight the Cold War, who could shape U.S. foreign policy, and who could define what it meant to be Catholic.




Q2. Your recent article for Diplomatic History, “Reagan’s Real Catholics vs. Tip O’Neill’s Maryknoll Nuns: Gender, Intra-Catholic Conflict, and the Contras,” explores how the Reagan administration and other supports of the contras used gendered language to undermine Tip O’Neill and other opponents of contra funding. How does this article align with your larger book project (if at all)? What led you to focus on this particular aspect of the congressional battle over funding to the contras?

“Reagan’s Real Catholics vs. Tip O’Neill’s Maryknoll Nuns” builds on a part of the manuscript that discusses the battle over contra funding and Maryknoll Sisters’ role. The article grew out of a research paper during my second year of graduate school. I was trying to move away from focusing on the rape and murder of the four women in El Salvador.  I did not set out to write an article about nuns or the contras.  But in the course of my research, I remembered that in Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, Bob Woodward reported that CIA Director Bill Casey said that “If Tip O’Neill didn’t have Maryknoll nuns who wrote letters, we would have a Contra program.”  Casey did not elaborate. And I wanted to know more. I did not approach the sources with gender in mind. Truth be told, though, I think timing also played a role. I began my research not long after reading—and being fascinated by —Mary Louise Roberts’s Civilization Without Sexes: Reconstructing Gender in Postwar France, 1917-1927. I found her argument about gender, discourse, and power both persuasive and intuitive.  I think her discussion of discourse also appealed to the lawyer in me.

Q3.  In writing about the intersection of religion, identity, gender, and foreign relations, what kinds of evidence do you draw on when formulating your arguments? What, if any, challenges have you encountered when working these types of sources? Did your research take you to any Central American archives or do you focus primarily on domestic sources? Are there any particularly interesting sources you’ve come across in your research?

I use traditional diplomatic sources, such as the presidential papers of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, State Department records, and declassified government documents as well as correspondence from non-state actors, including Catholic groups that supported and opposed U.S.-Central America policy.  I use sources from the United States, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, including newspapers and correspondence between Catholics in those countries.

I have had some difficulty writing about Nicaragua at times because of Iran-contra.  I have gotten the distinct sense at some private archives that materials related to Nicaragua—even tangentially—were not put in the files. There were conservative Catholics who were very active in promoting the contra cause and in defending Oliver North, yet there is no paperwork.  I do not think it is a coincidence.

One of the sources I use that others might find boring is Congressional mail. The letters rarely make it into my manuscript, but they have given me a much fuller sense of who cared about U.S.-Central America policy and why.  I have learned whether people wrote about one issue, such as U.S. policy toward El Salvador, or whether they grouped issues together, such as El Salvador, the Philippines, and nuclear weapons.  Letters have been a great way for me to see how people explained their positions in ways that mixed their religious and political views.

One of the most entertaining (and disturbing) letters I read was from a man in Los Angeles.  He argued that it was no coincidence that there was turmoil in Central America, Northern Ireland, and Poland because they were all Catholic areas. And these “Catholic vermin” were coming to America and “wrecking it.”  As he explained, “Just like your CATHOLICS have made a stinking mess of Mass.” The historian in me immediately thought about how views of Catholics in the United States have changed – or in this case, not – over time. I was also reminded of the importance of understanding the domestic religious context when investigating U.S. foreign relations and religion.

Q4.  Is there a recent article or book on the history of religion and U.S. foreign relations that you could recommend to our readers?

That is a good question. I find that I read things differently now that I am also considering how I might use them in the classroom. As a stand-alone piece, I still go back to Seth Jacobs’s article “‘Our System Demands a Supreme Being:’ The U.S. Religious Revival and the ‘Diem Experiment,’ 1954-55,” again and again because he combines a discussion of religion’s influence on U.S. foreign relations with religion’s influence on the domestic context of the United States.

Q5.  Has your background as a human rights activist and attorney shaped your research or research interests in any way? If so, how?

It definitely has. The short answer is that my experiences provide me with an understanding of what it means to lobby government officials, to use the court system to bring about change, to craft human rights campaigns, and to build advocacy networks across state borders.  The more I have progressed with this project, though, the more I see connections between my past and the kind of topics I am drawn to and how I study them.

For example, when I read the debates about whether the U.S. should send military aid to El Salvador or the contras, I do not just think about them as U.S. political discussions or how they fit into people’s understandings about how to fight the Cold War.  I also think about how those government decisions impact individual’s lives in the long-term. In Derry, I worked with families whose loved ones had been hurt or killed by the British security forces.  In many cases, their sense of powerlessness caused them to recoil in silence. Some chose not to say anything to the government. Others also stayed silent and acted as if the event never happened. They removed family pictures of their loved ones and stopped speaking about the person. Their pain, decades later when I met them, was palpable. When I read about state violence, I think about these lasting impacts on people, not just the body count or whether Republicans or Democrats “won” the debate.


Thank you so much for sharing these great details on your research, background, and forthcoming work, Terri! I look forward to seeing further discussion unfold in the comments section.

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