In the late 1920s, a devastating religious war tore Mexico apart. Catholic militants--known as “Cristeros” from their battle cry ¡Viva Cristo Rey!--took up arms against the government of Mexican president Plutarco Elías Calles.

Until recently, few Americans were even aware of the war. Yet suddenly it’s become a cause célèbre in certain U.S. Catholic circles. A new movie, For Greater Glory, has brought the story of the Cristero War to a much wider audience. At the same time, prominent Catholics--outraged by the Obama administration’s contraception-coverage mandate--have begun making direct and indirect comparisons between Mexico’s President Calles and Barack Obama. Why? Because one of the reasons for the uprising was Calles’s brutal enforcement of anti-Catholic laws.

The film’s publicity campaign has fanned the flames. Eduardo Verastegui, who played a Mexican Catholic activist in For Greater Glory, told CNS News that he didn’t “see any difference between Plutarco Elías Calles and President Obama.” And Rubén Quezada, the film’s historical consultant, compared the contraception mandate to the Mexican case, stating in an interview with Legatus magazine that “this is how the persecution in Mexico began.”

Yet the comparison between Plutarco Elías Calles and President Obama is erroneous and misleading. It is also ahistorical. Several Catholic leaders have framed the contraception mandate as an infringement on religious liberty--a “slippery slope” that could lead to wider religious restrictions, just like those in Mexico in the 1920s.

But equating the anticlerical laws of 1920s Mexico with the contraception mandate today is nonsense. Mexico has had a completely different relationship with the Catholic Church. Mexico was a colony of Spain--where Catholicism was the established religion--and Catholic missions settled the country in tandem with Spanish conquistadors. During the Colonial period, the church became the most powerful institution in the country--acquiring vast territories and wealth--and its clergy enjoyed distinct privileges under the law. Mexicans had also suffered under the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition.

After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1810, successive secular governments struggled to achieve separation of church and state. The culmination of that effort came in a set of anti-clerical laws enacted by President Calles in 1926.

The “Calles laws,” as they were known, were so comprehensively oppressive that they would be completely unthinkable in contemporary America. They denied legal personality to the church, outlawed monastic and religious orders, secularized all religious education, and forbade the clergy from voting or making political statements in public. Priests and nuns were prohibited from wearing religious garb outside of churches and convents, and public worship was outlawed.

The Cristeros, dismayed by the laws and distraught at the closure of their churches--especially their inability to receive the sacraments--responded by rebelling against the Calles government. Adorned with religious paraphernalia and carrying the banner of Christ the King and the Virgin of Guadalupe, many Cristero soldiers--including young boys, priests, and women--went to their deaths, and killed thousands of federal soldiers in the name of God. Some 100,000 combatants were killed on both sides.

The Cristero War offers a tragic example of what can go wrong when negotiations between political and religious leaders break down completely. But Mexico’s religious war happened in an authoritarian political system where dissidents were often killed or exiled, and freedom of speech was never guaranteed.

In sharp contrast with the bloodshed of the Cristero War, the Catholic Church’s conflict with the Obama administration has taken the form of a vibrant, largely civil debate. Some Catholics across the country have spoken out in opposition to the law, and have organized to have it changed. Recently, forty-three Catholic institutions filed lawsuits against the Obama administration over the contraception mandate. The U.S. bishops have announced a “Fortnight for Freedom” (June 21-July 4), meant to draw attention to the issue of religious freedom. This kind of open dialogue and legal recourse would have been impossible--even unimaginable--in 1920s Mexico.

When it comes to history, context is everything. The United States today is nothing like Mexico of the late 1920s. Our legal framework and political system are completely different. To equate Obama with a 1920s Mexican dictator, or to draw comparisons between the contraception mandate and anti-clerical regime of Calles, is ignorant at best, and demagogic at worst.

Julia G. Young is associate professor of history and director of undergraduate studies at the Catholic University of America. 

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