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The Americas 61.2 (2004) 217-244

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Civic Foreign Policy:

Human Rights, Faith-Based Groups and U.S.-Salvadoran Relations in the 1970s*

Friedrich Ebert Foundation
Bonn, Germany


El Salvador, the smallest but most densely populated country of Central America, experienced one of Latin America's bloodiest civil wars, accompanied by widespread human rights violations. State repression was especially brutal against opposition groups such as peasant associations, unions, students, and religious people.1 Twenty-five church people were murdered and many religious workers were persecuted, expelled, or tortured. Several U.S. missionaries were among those murdered or expelled victims. Although the number of religious victims is relatively small in comparison to the tens of thousands of people who were killed in the three civil wars of El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, the murders of religious personnel had a profound impact on the religious community in Central America, and particularly in El Salvador. This impact also reached religious groups in the United States. Given the traditional alliance between the Catholic Church and the political and economic elites throughout most [End Page 217] of Salvadoran history, the murders of religious leaders by government or government-linked forces symbolized a remarkable shift.2

Between 1973 and 1980, groups within the Catholic Church and certain Protestant denominations challenged the political system in El Salvador and the principles of United States foreign policy. These religious groups lobbied for a diplomacy that concentrated on the protection and development of human rights in Central America in general and in El Salvador in particular. By doing so, they expressed a civic foreign policy with the goal of holding the U.S. government to policies that cherished individuals' lives and broadened the economic and political possibilities of citizens worldwide. The main participants that shaped the development and character of civic foreign policy toward El Salvador in the 1970s were groups and individual activists from the Roman Catholic Church, the mainline Protestant churches, and the Protestant peace churches. Indeed, these religious groups mainly formed the U.S. human rights movement since the Vietnam War.3 While structurally and tactically similar to secular interest groups, faith-based organizations are distinct. Their existence is justified by religion, which in itself is "a primary source of moral and ethical teaching."4 While elements of the history of Christianity, such as missionary endeavors and wars in the name of the religion, demonstrate the abuses and contradictory tendencies of Christian care-taking, Christian principles still function as a source for humanitarian activities and solidarity beyond the nation.

The Activities of U.S. Faith-Based Groups in El Salvador

A large economic division between the rural poor and a very small wealthy ruling class has characterized the social structure throughout Central American history. Until the 1980s, power in El Salvador had been monopolized by an agro-industrial oligarchy, the military, and governing parties that merely [End Page 218] legitimized military rule. The economy was, therefore, run by the economic elite; political power was in the hands of the military and their political representatives. The distribution of land had always been the political issue in El Salvador. With industrialization and modernization, productivity increased and exports diversified. Economic activity more than doubled between 1960 and 1980. The expansion of commercial agriculture and the concentration of landownership thrust aside the subsistence economy of peasants and drove them off their land, thereby causing a rapid migration of labor to the urban areas. Industrialization produced more goods but did not offer sufficient employment opportunities. Despite the economic boom in the 1960s and 1970s, the standard of living of most Salvadorans deteriorated.5 In 1980 the wealthiest 20 percent of the Salvadoran population possessed two-thirds of the national income, while the poorest 20 percent owned only two percent.6

Missionary societies and relief organizations working abroad reflected the Cold War mentality prevalent in the 1950s and early 1960s. They were eager to counteract communism with a Christian democratic ideal. Protestants had outnumbered Catholics as missionaries in Latin American in the 1950s, but...


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