Politics & Policy

Guarding Religious Liberty

Andy Garcia in For Greater Glory (New Land Films)
A tale of two countries: Mexico, 1926, versus the U.S., 2012.

The topic of religious liberty has been in the headlines a great deal recently, and in two weeks it will be on the big screen as well.

Years in the making, the film For Greater Glory tells the story, which has been all but forgotten, of the Mexican government’s persecution of the Catholic Church. It is a story of exiled bishops, murdered priests, and eventually a civil war: a war fought over religious freedom.

Americans of all faiths should watch this film. And they should thank God that they live in the United States, in a country ruled by law, where our differences are decided in courtrooms and with ballots rather than bullets.

Threats to religious freedom everywhere have certain similarities. A government attempts to take away from its people a fundamental right. It attempts to redefine how its people can think. In Mexico in the late Teens and Twenties, enforcement of the laws was violent, and violence begot more violence, and soon the entire country was engulfed in a civil war.

Nearly nine decades later, in the United States, a country that functions under the rule of law, we will protect our rights very differently. When people of faith in the United States respond to government intrusion into our First Amendment right of the free exercise of religion, we do so with civility, and with the knowledge that courts and elections have power to effect change.

For Greater Glory is a stark reminder that not every country has the stability, meaningful enfranchisement, and legal recourse that we enjoy here in the United States.

Mexico in the early 20th century was a turbulent place. Governments and revolutions came and went — violently and frequently. But the Catholic faith, to which the overwhelming majority of Mexicans adhered, held the country together.

Then in 1924 the Mexican government moved to suppress that faith. With the election of Plutarco Eliás Calles as president, it began to enforce anti-Catholic provisions of the 1917 constitution that had mostly been in abeyance until then. One of the government’s first assaults on religious liberty was its attempt to control who could serve as clergy. Foreign priests were expelled — or killed. Clergy were required to register with the government, which reserved the right to determine who counted as a priest.

Next came the move to ban religion from public view. Citizens were told they could “worship” freely, but privately. Priests who wore clerical attire outside their churches or rectories faced large fines. A priest who criticized the government could be jailed for five years, and priests were arrested or killed just for serving their flocks. Catholic organizations, with the blessing of their bishops, started resisting — peacefully at first, but then with arms when they were attacked. The violence snowballed, and soon Mexico was in the grip of a civil war.

Just last year here in the United States, the federal government began to try to determine who qualified as clergy. To be sure, there was no jailing or other violence, but there was an attempt to alter the definition of clergy. Arguing against the well-established right of churches to choose who could serve them as ministers, the government maintained in court that ministers ought to be subject to employment laws from which they had previously been exempt.

The response to our government’s attempt to strip churches of their ability to decide who qualifies as a minister was what we might expect in this country: a lawsuit. In Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the First Amendment right of churches to choose their ministers — and to have them free of onerous government regulation.

In the United States today, as in Mexico in the 1920s, government leaders speak about “freedom of worship.” It’s a phrase that does not appear in our Constitution. As Americans, we are guaranteed something much broader: the free exercise of religion. But that hasn’t stopped government attempts to forbid religious displays in public.

But again, there are differences as well as similarities. In Mexico in the 1920s, the government’s attempt to suppress religion fostered a violent reaction. In the United States, such conflicts are resolved through courts and legislation and at the ballot box. There is no talk here of banning clerical garb, although there is a not so subtle attempt to define religion as a purely private matter.

The Cristero War in Mexico was the result of a failed legal system and a dictatorship bent on destroying the influence of the Church in the lives of the people. Mexico had no separation of powers, no legal process by which the people could protect themselves. Eliás Calles once famously noted that if people did not submit to his laws, they would submit to his guns.

Here in the United States, our government derives its power from the consent of the governed — something we see in every election and in every court decision that the government must abide by.

Watching For Greater Glory should crystallize for the viewer how blessed we are to live in a country where vibrant debate can be carried out in courtrooms and in the court of public opinion; where we can vote, and can ask our elected representatives to represent us; and if they won’t, next time we can vote for people who will.

The fact is that in the United States we are “one nation under God,” operating under the rule of law as citizens “endowed by our Creator” with unalienable rights that the state cannot abrogate.

Such an understanding is not partisan. It is American. It represents the views of presidents from Washington to Jefferson to Lincoln to Kennedy to Reagan. In this country we may sometimes have to defend our rights vigorously, but we must also do so with civility if we would do justice to the responsibilities our rights entail.

— Carl Anderson is CEO of the Knights of Columbus and the author, most recently, of Beyond a House Divided.


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