Bad History

No, Obama Is Not an Anti-Catholic Mexican Dictator

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.

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I suspect followers of Obama will be quick to downplay the comparison (as this article confirms).  But look closely at the agenda, and dictates of these men.  Certainly, there are strong similarities.

If your goal is historical understanding, then you've corrupted it by claiming Mexico was subject to the horrors of the Inquisition.    Introduction of the Inquisition to Mexico was not considered prudent by the religious and secular authorities; for one thing, the Church was not confronted by Islam or the Reformation in Mexico.   The religious sent to evangelize the native population often positioned themselves as protectors, and deemed it prudent to incorporate elements of native worship into Christian practice, notably the Day of the Dead.   You might ask why many Mexicans are such devoted Catholics.   Marxists like Calles may have considered Christianity poison for the masses, but there was a time when the Spanish and Catholicism were far preferable to the Aztecs and human sacrifices.  

Jim: Are you serious?

The Inquisition in New Spain, 1536-1820: A Documentary History: http://www.amazon.com/The-Inquisition-Spain-1536-1820-ebook/dp/B0084FB9X...

Prof. Young's faculty page: http://history.cua.edu/faculty/Young/index.cfm

The conservative wing of the church is beating the drums for this 'heroic' portrayal of fighting back against a repressive government denying religious freedoms. The cost of 100,000 lives was not insignificant - it amounted to a Mexican civil war. And the resultant era since then has not exactly been all that rosy or full of cooperative activity between church and state. Mexico is still a very backward country, especially in the rural areas inhabited by "primitives" and the church's ability to provide even a modicum of worship and sacramental experience is extremely poor - they simply are horribly understaffed and unable to reach people very often. We see the outfall of that in the somewhat lackadaisical practice among recent immigrants - they show up for major 'fiestas' but don't count on them for regular Sunday. Meanwhile, the Republican folk are cheering this movie on, hoping for as much anti-government and anti-Obama sentiment as possible.

IN NO WAY AM I SAYING  THE RELIGIOUS WERE BAD TO THE PEOPLE OF MEXICO. IF IT WERE TRULY NOT FOR THE RELIGIOUS THAT WENT TO MEXICO TO SPREAD THE WORD OF GOD I BELIEVE THAT THE ENTIRE LATIN AND CENTRAL AMERICAS WOULD BE LOST TO CATHOLICISM.  THE GROUND WORK HAD TO BE LAID BY SOMEONE AND IT WAS I BELIEVE THE FRANCISCAN MONKS.

 I THINK IT WAS TRUE THAT THE SPANIARDS TREATED THE PEOPLE WRONG AND TOOK GOLD FROM THEM AND OTHER VALUABLES. THEIR RULE WAS QUITE OPPRESIVE.

 THE CATHOLIC PRIEST STOOD UP SO THAT THE PEOPLE WOULD BE TREATED RIGHTLY AND THUS A GOOD MANY OF THE PRIEST AND OTHER RELIGIOUS WERE PUT TO DEATH. SOME GOVERNMENTS HATE IT WHEN A PRIEST STANDS UP TO THEM BECAUSE THEY KNOW THAT THE POPUKOUS WOULD DO THE SAME.

 

 THERE ARE A LOT OF THEATERS NOT PLAYING THIS MOVIE BECAUSE THEY SAY IT IS TOO CATHOLIC. THEY ARE THE ONES AGAINST US.THEY ARE TRYING TO PROTECT OTHER RELIGIONS.THEY DO NOT WANT THE TRUTH OUT THERE ABOUT WHAT MEXICO DID AT THE TIME. WE NEED TO SHOW THE WORLD THE TRUTH.EVEN IF IT HURTS THE NEIGHBOR TO THE SOUTH.

Mr. Adamcheck, you're shouting.

My first reaction to seeing the hype of the movie "Cristeros" in mainly Catholic publications and blogs was similar to Professor Young's. The comparison of the situation the Catholic Church faced in Mexico in the 1920's to the situation the Church faces in United States in 2012 is a stretch. However, a complacent attitude on the part of Catholics that "it can't happen here" is also not a proper response to the point many of the supporters of the movie and its message. When the Obama administration took the step of narrowly defining the "ministry" of the Catholic Church and, as yet, failed to rescind that definition, a crucial step was taken that could shackle the ability of the Church to speak and act on behalf of Catholic Christian principles in this country. I was heartened when the Catholic Health Association finally came out to agree that the definition has to be rescincded or changed drastically. I am still a bit alarmed that moderate and liberal Catholics, with whom I have always identified, do not grasp the danger here and have not taken a more vigorous stance against the Administration on this point. There is a "slippery slope." The messages some more conservative Catholics want us to take from "Cristeros" are certainly overblown; but, if the movie does provoke the thought that if the Administration continues on this path to limit the Catholic Church's influence on the well-being and culture of this country is successful, a major step down that slippery slope will have been taken.

I just don't understand the fear here. Yes, there has been a limit or restriction of the religious expression of Catholic institutions and employers, in that indirectly they are being made to cooperate with what we see as an evil, but this was done in the service of granting rights to other groups, not as a malevolent attack on the Catholic Church (at least in my opinion). Catholics are still as free as they ever were to exercise their religion by professing their beliefs about the sinful nature of ABC, they come and go to Mass unobstructed, there is no religious test for public office, etc, etc. The fact that Catholic institutions are free to sue the government for redress of their grievances without pressure from the state even further demonstrates that the rights of the Catholic Church are hardly being abrogated in the violent manner that the Calles regime engaged in.  There is just no merit to the comparisons, and to whip up such fears is just incredibly irresponsible on the part of those who make them.

Sonja, I'm sorry I thought this was a Catholic web site and not the World Socialist Web Site.  You must mean the book that says the Inquisition as an institution is widely misunderstood.  But why quibble about whether the Inquisition existed in Mexico and tried two dozen people or didn't.   It's preposterous to say that what might have happened in the 18th century is an excuse for Marxists shooting Catholic clergy in the 20th, or that if the Inquisition actually existed at some time in Mexico anyone knew it.   Do you think all the people I go to church with and who are devoted to the Virgin of Gaudalupe, for example, are morons whose ancestors were easily cowed into commitment to their faith.  Guia mi camino.

Jim, you may be confusing Marxists with Masons.  I always understood the Scottish Rite funded a lot of anti-Catholic activity Mexico, and were doing this as late as the 1950s and 1960s.  When I lived in Mexico, even nominally Catholic doctors had to become Masons.  American Catholic bishops shrunk in horror from this possibility in the USA as they did from the YMCA.  As time goes by and the information age expands our understanding of the world, we come to appreciate the viewpoints of honest though not wholly infallible men and women.

A lot of the comments on this page indicate that most of the commentators could read a little more history.  I for one will not be stuck back in the era when my Dominican grade school principal was selling comic books based on the hearings of the House on UnAmerican activities.  

Let's awake Joe McCarthy from his drunken slumber in his tomb that he may pray for a grace-filled appearance at the General Judgement.

If anything, I'd think the movie would manifest the utter dissimilarity between what's happening in the US and anything like a real "persecution" of Catholics.  Trying to portray an honest disagreement over health insurance regulations with Mexico's anti-clerical laws insults everybody's intelligence.  From an historical standpoint, US Catholics faced far more in the way of discrimination, even persecution during the era of the Cristero rebellion when, for example, there were attempts to permanently shut down Catholic schools in several states of the US than any of the alleged horrors claimed by our episcopal leadership today.  Sigh.

Beverly Bailey, I agree with your assessment of the movie. It was not, however, created to serve any p.r. purpose, of the Bishops' or anyone. Unfortunately, it has been usurped by some and used as a scare tactic. However, I do not understand your phrase, "alleged horrors claimed by our episcopal leadership today." Can you explain what horrors they are allegedly claiming? They are primarily, as I understand it, and it seems the CHA also understands it this way, objecting to the narrow definition of Catholic/religious ministry put forth by the Obama Administration that is contrary to the understanding of that ministry in this country for 200+ years and throughout most of the world for millenia. If that definition were to prevail and government action taken on it as a matter or course, starting with the "revised" mandate, the influence of the Church in the public square, almost always a progressive and benign influence, will be curtailed, if not ended all together.

 

My fear is that US Catholics without their knowledge may be being recruited to become useful idiots in fostering someone else's agenda. It would be interesting to know who exactly the producers and financiers of this movie are.

Wayne Sheridan:  "I do not understand your phrase, "alleged horrors claimed by our episcopal leadership today." Can you explain what horrors they are allegedly claiming? They are primarily, as I understand it, and it seems the CHA also understands it this way, objecting to the narrow definition of Catholic/religious ministry put forth by the Obama Administration that is contrary to the understanding of that ministry in this country for 200+ years and throughout most of the world for millenia. If that definition were to prevail and government action taken on it as a matter or course, starting with the "revised" mandate, the influence of the Church in the public square, almost always a progressive and benign influence, will be curtailed, if not ended all together."

Well, Wayne, if you've followed what several individual bishops have said, not to mention the way they've been hyping their call-to-arms from the pulpit, it's hard to sustain the idea that it's only the narrow definition the HHS (not even the entire Obama administration, just Health and Human Resources) gave "religious employer" for purposes of this mandate that has the USCCB so worked up.    I agree that it would be well to expand the definition to include hospitals and social agencies (not necessarily universities, but that's another argument), yet the USCCB has certainly not limited itself to either protesting that issue or offering counter-proposals to move along negotiations, which the administration agreed to pursue with its opening shot on Feb. 10.

Instead, they've gone about declaring the Obama administration the enemy of religion in general and themselves and their "religious liberty" in particular to the point of one bishop comparing the President to Hitler.  That's where "alleged horrors" comes in.  That some see a reflection of their "struggle" in a movie about the Cristero rebellion is testimony enough to how over-the-top our leaders' rhetoric has gotten.  Their "Fortnight of Freedom" call for Catholics to take to the streets and protest with words and "action" is hardly proportionate to a difference of opinion over definitions.  It sounds a great deal more like Tea Partiers in episcopal clothing imagining themselves as street fighting men a la the Rolling Stones. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

 

 

"...not even the entire Obama administration, just Health and Human Resources."

Services!  Health and Human Services.  Sheesh.

 

Paul Mannstein: "My fear is that US Catholics without their knowledge may be being recruited to become useful idiots in fostering someone else's agenda. It would be interesting to know who exactly the producers and financiers of this movie are."

It's a Mexican film produced by a "Christian" named Jose Barroso and financed by, according to the promo materials, "Christians."  Sounds like code for agenda moviemaking to me.  Sigh.

In an interview on a web site called ExchangeforGold.com (which seems to be devoted to rightwing politics and economics), Barroso called the timing of his movie's US opening with the series of Catholic lawsuits against the Obama administration for its alleged "assault on religious freedom," a key reason why films like his matter.

<<“It’s amazing that we keep doing the same mistake over and over,” he says.

“It’s not only the Catholic Church … it’s everyone that has a conscience and has the ability to choose who they worship and also what they do or don’t do,” he says...

“For Greater Glory” is told in English despite the Mexican setting, but Barroso says the decision came down to making sure as many people didn’t miss the chance to learn an important chapter in modern history.

“English is the language for all the movies … any other way wouldn’t be wise,” he says. “If we want to really show this part of history to the world, it needs to be what it is.”

It probably should be pointed out that this is also a very one-sided view of the Cristero revolt.  Left out, of course, is any mention of the thousands of rural schoolteachers tortured and murdered by Cristeros for the crime of working for the government instead of the Church.  It was an ugly time in Mexico...kind of like today, except that the object of violence then was religion, not drugs.

It seems some of us on the Left are into the same type of conspiracy theories that so many on the Right are addicted to. Beverly Bailey, I think you are right that some Bishops are making extreme statements and that a few may be clandestine supporters of the Republicans in the upcoming election, but I still firmly believe the core of the suit is against the narrow defintion of a religious ministry that would severly hamper the voice and actions of the Church (and other churches, as underscored by the many Lutheran, Baptist, Evangelical and even Islam organizations who have come out in suppor to the suits). I hope and pray the suits are successful. I think the Catholic Left has made a huge tactical and perhaps strategic mistake by not backing the Bishops on this point and, instead, it seems, trying to turn the focus on what to me are peripheral matters.

 

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About the Author

Julia G. Young is a historian of Mexico and Latin America at the Catholic University of America.

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