A surprising story of religious liberty from Hollywood.
Mexican president Plutarco Calles (1924-28) thought the Catholic Church was part of a foreign plot to topple his government and control Mexico. He duly unleashed the Mexican military against the churches, but the repressions created an armed rebellion that forms the back story of For Greater Glory, a film that should inspire audiences, filmmakers and any group confronting oppression.
Calles deployed anti-clerical measures in Mexico’s 1917 constitution and added to them. He punished priests for wearing vestments in public, imprisoned priests for criticizing the government, deported foreign-born priests, and placed churches under government control. The National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty (LNDLR) responded with petitions, protests, and then a boycott. Those only had the effect of further enraging Calles, who then deployed federal troops against the churches.
In cinema, out of sight is out of mind. To its great credit, For Greater Glory shows this persecution in considerable detail. Mexican federal troops ransack churches, raid villages, slaughter civilians and hang them from telegraph poles. Mexican federal troops execute priests by firing squad and torture captives, demanding that they say “long live the federal government.” They resist and respond.
A rag-tag guerilla army of ranchers and peasants rises up against the federales, led by a priest and supported by the LNDLR and its clandestine network. The Cristeros, as they called themselves, hire Enrique Gorostieta, (Andy Garcia) an agnostic liberal and boastful ex-general to unify their forces. Though without formal military training they prevailed over Mexican federal troops in key battles. Historians may quibble about details but overall the account is accurate and balanced.
Guerilla war is always a bloody business and the film shows the Cristeros burning a train, with civilians still inside. This action hurts their support from abroad. Gorostieta was betrayed by a federal spy and gunned down, but the cause was not lost.
The Mexican government, the Vatican and the United States worked out an agreement and by 1929 the fighting ceased, the repressions halted, and Catholics were again free to worship in peace. So this epic story has a happy ending of sorts. Whatever one thinks of religious people, including priests, taking up arms against the government – it was okay under the Marxist “liberation theology” of the 1980s as long as the government was pro-American – any settlement would have been unlikely without the armed rebellion.
For Greater Glory may make a profit and win some awards but its greatest achievement could be to make the commercial cinema safe for subjects such as religious persecution and religious liberty. Filmmakers can now feel free to show persecution of religious believers in Cuba, the USSR, Albania, China, North Korea, Cambodia and other Communist nations. But the effort should not stop there.
Islamic nations are not exactly strong on religious freedom, consigning Christians, Jews and others to the second-class citizenship of dhimmitude, and much worse. In some regimes, such as Indonesia, Islamic reformers themselves bear the brunt of government persecution. And Islamic regimes do not exactly welcome the equivalent of Mexico’s religious freedom league.
All this should be fair game for commercial films with the dramatic flair and verisimilitude of For Greater Glory. The presence of Peter O’Toole, Eva Longoria and Andy Garcia confirms that major stars will participate in such projects. So far audiences and critics seem receptive, so let the filming begin, with the courageous Mexicans of the 1920s providing inspiration. They were not about to accept dhimmitude lying down, and neither should anybody else.
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