On the morning of June 2, 1929, a detachment of federales gunned down a middle-aged former army general outside a hacienda chapel in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Enrique Gorostieta was the commander of a Catholic peasant militia known as the Cristeros, which had been fighting the government of President Plutarco Calles for three years. In 1926, the fiercely anti-clerical Calles had moved to curtail the Catholic Church’s activities in Mexico, demanding the registration of the clergy and stripping the Church of the right to own property. Lay Catholics protested, Calles’s federales stormed local churches, and tens of thousands of the rural faithful rebelled. Gorostieta—himself a liberal-minded agnostic—had been hired to bring a measure of military discipline to the then-leaderless uprising. By the time he was killed in Jalisco, his guerrillas had fought the Mexican army to a near-stalemate.
“I describe Gorostieta as a Mexican William Wallace,” Dennis Rice, CEO of Visio Entertainment, told me, referring to the medieval Scottish patriot portrayed by Mel Gibson in Braveheart. It was late on a Thursday night in May, and Rice had called me from a taxi on his way back from the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. He had just spoken at the annual black-tie gala hosted by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the conservative legal organization that last year filed the first lawsuit against the Obama administration’s ruling requiring that religious organizations provide coverage of contraceptives in their health insurance plans.
New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who led the Catholic Church’s public campaign against the ruling, had given the invocation at the dinner, and Rice had shown a clip from For Greater Glory, a historical drama about Gorostieta and the Cristeros, which he is marketing. For Greater Glory is among the most expensive movies ever produced in Mexico and was the second-highest grossing movie at the Mexican box office in late April. But, in the United States, where For Greater Glory opens on June 1, the hope among conservative Catholic leaders is that the film will deliver a different kind of performance—as a weapon for winning one of this political season’s great culture-war skirmishes.
THE CONNECTION may not be immediately obvious to non-churchgoers. But, for anyone familiar with the air of aggrieved persecution that has permeated the Church, as well as right-leaning Protestant institutions, since President Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued its ruling on contraception, the allegorical value of a Western-style epic about rugged God- and gun-loving individualists doing battle with an overreaching federal government is hard to miss. “Freedom is not just for writers and for politicians and for fancy documents!” Gorostieta, played by Andy Garcia, shouts to his men in the scene that Rice showed the Becket Fund crowd. “Freedom is our home, our wives, our children, our faith! Freedom is our lives—and we will defend it or die trying!” Watching the scene at a recent press screening of the movie, I half-expected to see the Cristeros ride off to battle in sweater vests.
After speaking about the administration’s contraception ruling at a mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington in April, Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl urged parishioners to go see For Greater Glory. Los Angeles Archbishop José Gómez has praised the film’s “message of the importance of religious freedom [that] has particular resonance for us today.” Organizers of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast invited the film’s producer to Washington in April and screened For Greater Glory for an audience of Catholic thought-leaders. “I don’t think the Catholic bishops are going to let the opportunity pass,” Ed Morrissey, senior editor at the popular conservative blog Hot Air and an early champion of the film, told me. “I think they’re looking at this as a great springboard for discussing the HHS mandate.”