This interview was conducted over email with Theresa Keeley, winner of our Juan E. Mendéz Award for Human Rights in Latin America, by Zac Johnson, a third-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. Keeley is the author of Reagan’s Gun-Toting Nuns: The Catholic Conflict over Cold War Human Rights Policy in Central America (Cornell University Press, 2020). 

Zac Johnson (ZJ): What inspired you to write Reagan’s Gun-Toting Nuns?

Theresa Keeley (TK): I stumbled onto the topic. I was interested in exploring the relationship between people’s religious and political identities. I also wanted to do something connected to human rights and Latin America. During research for a first-year graduate seminar, I was reading newspaper articles about Central America. I came across the story of the four U.S. churchwomen – Sisters Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, and Dorothy Kazel, and lay missioner Jean Donovan – who were raped and murdered in El Salvador in December 1980. I was familiar with the murder of Archbishop Romero, but not the women. As I read more, I saw Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s allegations that the women ran a roadblock and died in a shoot-out. I wondered, wouldn’t his comment be a public relations disaster? I knew Haig was Catholic and that his brother was a Jesuit priest. Why would he make comments like that when he knew how upsetting such remarks about nuns could be to Catholics? These questions inspired me to learn more about the Catholics in Reagan’s cabinet, Maryknoll, and what was happening in Central America.

ZJ: How do you think Reagan’s Gun-Toting Nuns contributes to our understanding of US foreign policy in Central America?

TK: Reagan’s Gun-Toting Nuns highlights the complex factors that shape U.S. foreign policy. In particular, it shows how religion and differing notions of human rights influenced both U.S. policy toward Central America and the response to it. In the 1980s, I argue, debates among Central American and U.S. Catholics over the church’s direction shaped Ronald Reagan’s policies toward Central America. By examining religion, and in particular, fights among Catholics, we can see how it was not simply the case of U.S. policymakers determining a course for U.S. policy and Central Americans opposing it. Instead, conservative U.S. and Central American Catholics applauded Reagan’s policies as helping to eradicate liberation theology, which they regarded as a dangerous influence on their nations and the church. Conversely, more liberal Catholics in both the United States and Central America objected to U.S. policy, which they saw as harmful to Central America and Catholicism. These differing views, in which people’s religious beliefs influenced and overlapped with U.S. foreign policy, help explain why debates over U.S.-Central America policy were so bitter.

In exploring religion and U.S. foreign policy, Reagan’s Gun-Toting Nuns raises larger questions. What role does religion play in U.S. foreign policy? How do people’s religious beliefs shape their outlook on the world and their understanding of what the U.S. role in the world should be? What does it mean to say that human rights should influence U.S. foreign policy? How should U.S. policymakers weigh U.S. interests versus policies’ impacts on foreigners? What sources should U.S. policymakers use to gather information about conditions in foreign countries and who counts as a credible source in this regard?

ZJ: Why did you choose to center your book on Catholicism and what key elements of the faith do you find attached to human rights policy?

TK: I knew I wanted to write about religious and political identity. I thought that by using a faith I knew I would understand the topic better. My original plan was to focus on Catholics and Northern Ireland, but I decided against it because I was worried. I wondered how I would write about people I knew, especially if I discovered that I was critical of their actions. Could I write in a way that people did not come across as stock characters with no complexity? I realize now that in focusing on U.S. policy toward Central America, I was forced to confront these same issues, but through a different geographic lens.

On one hand, some historians say “you should not write about things close to you. You will be biased and not see things objectively.” On the other hand, as I discuss with my students, I think there is a difference between weighing the evidence and acting like an unfeeling robot. I believe I better understand the divides I write about because of my personal experience. I have family members who hold different political views and outlooks on what it means to be Catholic. This helped me to see the humanity on both sides of this issue I research. I also grew up seeing Catholicism as not just a faith, but also as a link that connected me to people in other parts of the world. It instilled in me a global outlook. As I mention in my book’s introduction, as a very young child I went to the local Irish center to hear about the hunger strikers and I also attended a Ukrainian kindergarten where I sang anti-communist songs. I grew up in Philadelphia, but in visiting my in-laws in Miami, I was exposed to Catholics with close ties to Latin America. Similarly, I felt that I could understand transnational human rights campaigns and some of the lingering effects of violence because of my prior human rights advocacy. My experience has included helping people get protection from abuse orders from their same sex partners and challenging landlords who sexually harassed their tenants. I have also worked with people who shared their stories of trauma and family loss with me after never speaking of it for decades. I saw the lasting pain they experienced as the government blamed their loved ones for their own deaths. Those experiences were in the back of my mind when I approached people who were involved in these events in Central America during the 1970s and 1980s. I was struck by the pain many of them still feel.

ZJ: What is the significance of the time period you write in? Why the 1970 and 80s?

TK: I focused on the 1970s and 1980s because of my original research questions. As my project developed, I realized that the time period was pivotal. I do not believe my story could have happened at another time. President Jimmy Carter called for a greater link between human rights and U.S. foreign policy. Despite this, U.S. policy toward Central America did not primarily focus on human rights. As Central Americans pushed for change, the United States continued to support the status quo as part of its broader Cold War agenda. The Nicaraguan revolution in 1979 was a key turning point in the U.S. government’s increased interest in the region and concern with communist influence. Some Catholic U.S. missionaries serving in Central America pushed back against U.S. policymakers’ characterization of events. Inspired by their experiences living among the people, these missionaries questioned the United States’ role in the region and its Cold War focus.

Tensions increased with Ronald Reagan’s election. Reagan did not share Carter’s views, prompting a larger conversation about the relationship between human rights and U.S. foreign policy. But it was not simply a case of Carter prioritizing human rights and Reagan ignoring them. To many in the Republican Party, human rights were important, but they focused on how communism threatened human rights, especially how it deprived people of their religious freedom. Republicans’ concern with the denial of religious freedom was shared by Pope John Paul II. With Reagan’s election, many conservative Catholics gained access to power either by serving in his administration or as close allies. By contrast, Catholics in the United States largely led the protest movement against U.S. policy, setting up a showdown for the remaining Reagan years.

ZJ: What lessons does your book provide for the new Biden administration?

TK: I think Reagan’s Gun-Toting Nuns provides two potential lessons for the new Biden administration. First, the book highlights how divides among Catholics can overlap with and aggravate political divides. Biden should keep this in mind because it could make his attempts to reach out to Republicans who are Catholics particularly challenging. I think Biden is likely to continue to face criticism from Republicans who oppose his views, such as abortion, on both political and religious grounds. Many Catholics who voted for Trump do not even see Biden as a Catholic. Biden is a different kind of Catholic than those who were part of the Trump administration, such as Bill Barr and Kellyanne Conway, and those who surrounded Reagan. It will be difficult for Biden to win over those voters because it is not simply about swaying someone to a different political point of view. This religious element makes political disagreements potentially nastier and more personal.

The second lesson is for the United States to consider its own role – both now and in the past – in Central America, rather than dismissing the problems as entirely endemic to the region. Many people believe Central Americans are trying to enter the United States because of the conditions in their home countries. They do not realize there is also a longer history of U.S. ties – and involvement – in the region. In El Salvador, for example, the United States backed a government in the country’s civil war that prompted millions to flee in search of safety. Today, about a quarter of Salvadorans live in the United States. The Salvadoran economy depends on remittances from the United States and uses the U.S. dollar. The two countries are tied in ways today they were not forty years ago. The conversation about Central American migrants should acknowledge the role the United States played in fostering instability and violence.

ZJ: What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

TK: There are a few hopes I have for the book. One is that readers will see the lasting impacts of U.S. foreign policy on others. U.S. foreign policy does not exist in a vacuum. People – flawed humans – create it. What was a conversation – and even a heated debate – in the United States was a matter of life and death for Central Americans. People were tortured and murdered fighting for a better life. I mention some people by name but there were so many others. The Contra war left more than 30,000 dead. Seventy-five thousand Salvadorans died, 350,00 were wounded, and about 1 million were displaced. The wars in Central America may have ended, but the effects persist. In speaking to people about their experiences during the 1970s and 1980s, I was struck by how many of them did want me to use their names. Even decades later, they feared sharing their stories. Some of these were women religious who live in Europe and Australia.

I also hope readers will appreciate the complexity of faith, both in life and in trying to analyze it as an historian. Just because someone is Catholic does not mean that all Catholics think or act alike. In the 1980s, members of the Salvadoran exile community in Miami cheered on Reagan and even funded death squads while other Salvadorans desperately sought refuge in the United States through the Sanctuary movement. Similarly, there were U.S. Catholics who disagreed over Reagan’s Central America policies but agreed in criticizing him for supporting Margaret Thatcher’s approach to Northern Ireland. Faith is also not static. Just as someone’s political views can change over time, so too can someone’s religious outlook. Just because Joe Biden is Catholic does not mean we can predict exactly how he will act. People are messy. Faith is messy.

This is the twelfth year of this prestigious award, which is supported by the Duke Human Rights Center@the Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and the Human Rights Archives at the Rubenstein Rare Books and Manuscripts Library.

You can purchase Reagan’s Gun-Toting Nuns: The Catholic Conflict Over Cold War Human Rights Policy in Central America from Cornell University Press