What 'For Greater Glory' can teach us about Mexican history and the 2012 Hispanic vote

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Any good historical movie tells us a useful tale about the present as well as the past. And so the new film, "For Greater Glory," which opens Friday, not only gives us perspective about the history of Mexico but also adds insight into some deep influences on Mexicans and Mexican-Americans today. Indeed, "Glory" might even help us chart the future of the Hispanic vote in 2012 and beyond.

Most Americans don’t know much about Mexican history, but now that about 10 percent of the US population traces its ancestry back to Mexico, that will surely change. (Hispanics or Latinos from other countries add another five percent, for a total of 15 percent of the US population.) Yet even as American culture digests the difference between, say, Cinco de Mayo and Quinceanera, there are still many lessons to be learned--and Glory provides some powerful lessons.

The movie tells the true tale of a Mexican civil war over religion in the mid-to-late 1920s. Yet the roots of the story go back to the previous decade, to the Mexican Revolution of 1910, as well as to the Mexican Constitution of 1917, promulgated even as civil war and warlordism raged across the nation. However, by the early 20s, a left-wing and decidedly secular government had emerged in Mexico City, consolidating its control of the countryside.

These new leaders believed that Mexico had lagged in development because its people were bound into illiteracy, passivity, and fatalism by the Roman Catholic Church, which had been the established religion of the land for four centuries. Moreover, many in the new Mexican elite openly admired the Soviet Union; in Red Russia, it seemed, rapid progress was made by applying the modernizing vision of atheistic materialism--and so Christianity just got in the way.

And if Mexico wasn’t ready yet for communism, it was at least ready, they thought, for some hard-nosed secularism. So the words of the 1917 Constitution were given real teeth: “Education services should be secular, and, therefore, free of any religious orientation.” In furthering that that goal, the document continued, “The educational services shall be based on scientific progress and shall fight against ignorance, ignorances’s effects, servitudes, fanaticism, and prejudice”--in other words, fight against religion.

In 1926, President Plutarco Elias Calles, a militant atheist, went much further, imposing still more restrictions on the Church, including a ban on religious processions, on clerical garb outside of a church building--indeed, on the ability of the clergy to participate in any sort of public life. As Calles, played by Rubén Blades, says in the film, religion is “a plot to poison the minds of our people, to turn them into religious fanatics . . . this evil will not be tolerated.”

Such intolerance soon provoked violence, and the film places all the blame on the government, graphically depicting soldiers’ vandalism of churches and execution of priests. The next year, 1927, armed rebellion erupted, as peasants joined with priests to defend their faith. Under the banner of Viva Cristo Rey y Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe--that is, Christ the King and Our Lady of Guadalupe--Mexican civilians, calling themselves "Cristeros," fought against their own government.

"Glory" shows this fighting according to familiar Hollywood tropes--that is, the Cristero good guys are reluctant to fight at first, but then prove to be heroic and strong. Meanwhile, the bad guys are mustache-twirlingly evil when they assault the helpless, but when the heavy fighting begins, they show themselves to be incompetent--running toward their enemies so that they can be cinematically mowed down by the good guys.

In the real world of the time, the politics of the fighting proved to be complicated. The Vatican stayed mostly aloof from the bloodshed; Pope Pius XI was sympathetic to the Cristeros, but was reluctant to break altogether with the Mexican government. Meanwhile, other Catholic groups, including the Knights of Columbus in the US, actively supported the Cristeros. For its part, the US government, having intervened militarily in Mexico in the previous decade, was eager to see the conflict settled, one way or another, so that Mexico could continue selling oil to the US.

Over the three years, 1927 to 1929, some 90,000 Mexicans died in the fighting, at a time when the total population was about 15 million. To put those numbers in perspective, the same level of violence in the US today would mean nearly 2 million American deaths. By 1929, some restrictions on the church had been lifted and peace re-established, although the church still suffered repression well into the 1930s. In 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized 25 Cristero saints and martyrs.

In other words, "Glory" seeks to do for Mexican Catholicism what "Braveheart" did for Scottish nationalism, or what "The Patriot" did for American nationalism--that is, put it up on the big screen, with big, or at least reasonably big, stars. The cast includes Blades, Andy Garcia, Eva Longoria, and even a small role for the legendary Peter O’Toole.

So who makes a movie like this? Short answer: not the usual Hollywood suspects.

Some of the funding came from the Knights of Columbus, and help on marketing came from ARC Entertainment, which also helped out with marketing for the Sarah Palin documentary, "The Undefeated," and Emilio Estevez’s heartfelt meditation on Catholic duty, "The Way."

So, as we think about the horrific drug-violence in Mexico today--which has left some 50,000 dead in five years--we might think back to the Cristero War, and recall with sadness that a jagged streak of bloody violence runs through Mexican history. Future scholars may or may not see much of a connection between the Cristero War and the Narco War, but they will inevitably link the narco-terror to tragic patterns in Mexican history, going all the way back to the Aztecs and before.

Okay, but what of today, on this side of the border, where, for the most part, Americans uphold religious freedom and the rule of law? And what about the big question looming over the 2012 election and all future American elections--“Whither the Hispanic Vote?” Here, too, Glory provides some clues.


American Hispanics are mostly Democratic, although some say rising national star Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, could change that alignment. After all, as Fox News’ Juan Williams reminds us, many Hispanics are both conservative and Republican.

Williams recently interviewed Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), who declared, “Latinos under this president have actually had more poverty. They actually have had more unemployment.”Labrador continued: “I think what they need to look at the policies the Republican Party is espousing. They will see that we want to bring the Latino community to prosperity, just like we want to for all Americans.”

Some might say that those are all familiar partisan talking points--which is not to say that they are necessarily wrong. But then Labrador added an argument that echoes the message of "For Greater Glory":

"Immigrants have come to the United States escaping the problems that they had in more dictatorial countries and in countries where the government was taking too much power from the individual. And they’re asking, why is our government trying to do the same things that the countries that they escaped are doing?"

That is, Hispanics here in the US--whether they are from Mexico or other Latin countries--typically were seeking to escape the ill political and economic effects of banditry and tyranny, or both. Therefore, Republicans might conclude, a conservative message of law, order, justice, and religious freedom will resonate with these new Americans.

And we all might further ask: What led George Zimmerman, for example--whose mother is Peruvian--to carry a gun as he patrolled his neighborhood that night in Sanford, Fla.? The death of Trayvon Marin is fraught with continuing controversy, that’s for sure. But just as we have bravely sought to understand the African-American experience in all its complexity, so now we must bravely seek to understand the Hispanic experience and how it, too, shapes our nation.

Finding answers to those questions will make us all better Americans.