Religious Freedom Gets Hollywood Treatment

Just in time to influence an American presidential election comes a cautionary tale of a socialist tyrant imposing his will on the faithful of Christ to a theater near you. No, For Greater Glory, released on June 1, isn’t about cries of “religious freedom” in opposition to the requirement that health care providers cover women’s contraception. No blood has been spilled over that yet.

What director Dean Wright’s debut feature does do is import the little-known story of Mexico’s Cristero War of 1926-1929. The largely western conflagration was sparked by President Plutarco Calles’ long-delayed implementation of the strict anticlerical measures of the 1917 Constitution, and by the Church hierarchy’s suspension of services in response. While political and religious elites jockeyed for power, lay Catholics—bereft of sacraments—rose up in arms.

Michael Love’s script develops several sympathetic, if stock, characters, both historical and composite: a reluctant retired general (played by Cuban-American actor Andy García), a principled nonviolent resister (played by telenovela heartthrob Eduardo Verástegui), a dashing priest-turned-general, an arms-smuggling urban heroine, and an altar boy whose martyrdom at the hands of a local army officer will remind viewers of the gruesome fixations of Mel Gibson.

The villains, also from central casting, include the dastardly officer, the altar boy’s vacillating godfather (the town’s mayor), and the conniving tyrant in the capital city. Some morally complex characters do add a welcome nuance to the otherwise Manichaean saga, including U.S. Ambassador Dwight Morrow and high-ranking prelates who, in the end, broker a modus vivendi accord between Calles, his successor, and Rome.

In an interview with the National Catholic RegisterGlory’s producer Pablo Jose Barroso ascribed the timing of the film’s release in both countries to a higher agency. In Mexico it coincided with the Congress’ hurried alteration to the Constitution to expland freedom of belief to include freedom of conscience, Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to the cristero stronghold of Guanajuato state, and a papal flyover (in the presidential helicopter) around the Cristo Rey monument near León. (Mexicans go to the polls on July 1.)

The U.S. also stands in need of the film’s message right now, according to Barroso: “The movie is about conscience. No one ever wins when religion is oppressed. As believers we need to band together. This is the perfect time for this film. Hopefully, it will help wake people up to the things that are taking us from God. In the end, this will harm us. We have to be faithful.”

The litigious American bishops must agree. Many diocesan websites throughout the country linked the movie to last week’s Stand Up for Religious Freedom rallies and continue to do so in advance of the U.S. Bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom,” which starts next week.

A Battle Cry for Today

If the call to arms falls flat, it may have something to do with the film’s major flaw: its omission of the historical context. Namely, that the titanic conflict between Church and State in Mexico dates back to the founding of the Republic, when liberal priests and Masons sought unsuccessfully to de-couple the two institutions of national life.

With the help of General Antonio López de Santa Ana, its “brilliant star,” the Church held on to its forced tithing requirements, its monopoly over birth, marriage, and death, and, importantly, vast real estate. The religious and economic monopoly was finally cracked in the middle of the nineteenth century by Benito Juárez and other liberals, whose 1857 Constitution and Reforma laws eliminated the fueros and opened the floodgates of religious pluralism. The ensuing civil war between Conservatives and Liberals sent Juárez into exile and the country into heavy debt.

The eventually victorious Juárez received no quarter from his clerical antagonists when French troops invaded to exact payment of the war debt. In fact, the invasion was sought after by the prelates, and supported by Rome. Pope Pius IX fulminated against Mexican liberalism in 1856 and, in his 1864 Syllabus of Errors, he established the Church’s stance against modernity (e.g., public schools without religious instruction, civil marriages, etc.).

The rapprochement between longtime dictator Porfirio Díaz’s creaky regime and the Catholic Church united liberals, Masons, anarchists, Protestants, and Catholics (the vast majority of revolutionaries were Catholic) in opposition to the dictator’s perennial re-election, and heightened their distrust of the prelates and their uneven application of the Church’s new Social Doctrine in the aftermath of the Revolution.

This helps to explain why Protestants, teachers, agrarian reformers, and anyone associated with the revolutionary agenda dreaded the arrival of the cristero forces in their towns and villages—their side has a martyrdom narrative too—and why they were relieved at the government’s suppression of the revolt.

This also helps to explain the congratulatory telegram sent to President Calles by the Methodist annual conference meeting in Saltillo in October 1928. The ministers lauded Calles for his “brilliant governmental action” in the aftermath of the assassination of president-elect Alvaro Obregón (a revolutionary general who had already served as president) at the hands of Catholic partisan José de León Toral.

(Incidentally, de León Toral is still being promoted to join the altar boy, José Sánchez del Rio, in the Church’s altars. Pope Benedict XVI beatified Sánchez in 2005, while Pope John Paul II had already canonized 27 cristero martyrs in May 2000, two months before Catholic right candidate Vicente Fox ousted the Partido Revolucionario Institucional from the presidency.)

In the bigger picture, then, For Greater Glory’s depiction of the Cristero War is like pressing record on the Hatfields well after the McCoys have done their damage. There may be some truth to it, but it reveals very little about motivations and justifications. 

Saints and villains may boost box office receipts but our more pluralistic context and complex times call for more careful renderings of historical stories, especially one that elicits this (desired?) reaction from an elderly viewer at my local cineplex: “Maybe this is what we need to do today.”