Reagan's Gun-Toting Nuns: The Catholic Conflict over Cold War Human Rights Policy in Central America

Reagan's Gun-Toting Nuns: The Catholic Conflict over Cold War Human Rights Policy in Central America

by Theresa Keeley


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In Reagan's Gun-Toting Nuns, Theresa Keeley analyzes the role of intra-Catholic conflict within the framework of U.S. 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 U.S. engagement in El Salvador and Nicaragua, Keeley argues, the bitter debate between U.S. and Central American Catholics over the direction of the Catholic Church shaped President 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. 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 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, but, as Reagan's Gun-Toting Nuns contends, it 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, highlights religion-inspired activism during the Cold War. In charting the rightward development of American Catholicism, Keeley provides a new chapter in the history of U.S. diplomacy and shows how domestic issues such as contraception and abortion joined with foreign policy matters to shift Catholic laity toward Republican principles at home and abroad.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501750755
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Publication date: 09/15/2020
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.94(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

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

Table of Contents

Introduction: Catholic Divisions, U.S.–Central America Policy, and the Cold War
1. From Senator McCarthy's Darlings to Marxist Maryknollers
2. Religious or Political Activists for Nicaragua?
3. Subversives in El Salvador
4. U.S. Guns Kill U.S. Nuns
5. Reagan and the White House's Maryknoll Nun
6. Real Catholics versus Maryknollers
7. Maryknoll and Iran-Contra
8. Déjà Vu: Jesuits and Maryknollers
Epilogue: Women, the Catholic Church, and U.S.–Central America Relations after the Cold War

What People are Saying About This

William Michael Schmidli

"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

"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."

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