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.
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.