— Carl Anderson is CEO of the Knights of Columbus

he 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.




By Carl Anderson , For months America’s bishops have attempted to work with the current Administration to ensure adequate First Amendment religious freedom protection of religious organizations. They have been rebuffed each time, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops formally responded to proposed rules in the HHS mandate on May 15.

Our bishops’ response shows how easy it would be for the administration to make real progress on this issue, and how the federal regulations being implemented conflict with the cherished history of First Amendment liberty.
The brief states: “On balance, while the [proposed regulation] may create an appearance of moderation and compromise, it does not actually offer any change in the Administration’s earlier stated positions on mandated contraceptive coverage, which are now enshrined in a final rule.”

It continues: “The simplest and best solution to the various problems described above is the one the Administration so far has declined to adopt: to rescind the mandate. Failing this, the Administration should provide an exemption that protects all stakeholders with a religious or moral objection, in keeping with the consistent language and longstanding tradition of federal conscience protection law.”

Resolving this issue in keeping with the First Amendment is critical to the American way of life, and our bishops have shown excellent leadership in defending our constitutional rights.

The bishops’ document does an excellent job of laying out the case and does so in a professional and compelling way.

As we enter this election year, we can only imagine that debate over this issue will intensify. And when issues are intensely debated in election years, there is often a temptation to raise the intensity of the rhetoric.

We know we are morally and constitutionally correct. And that is all the more reason why it is important for Catholics committed to protecting our constitutional rights to lead by example in their rhetoric and actions. We must be firm, but not shrill. We must behave with respect, even if – and especially if – our federal government does not.

Last year the Secretary of Health and Human Services told a NARAL luncheon, “We are in a war.” I sincerely hope we can put away such partisan rhetoric. The fact is we are not in a war. Such rhetoric makes no sense in the United States where the government and citizens of the country alike work out their differences in courts and elections.

We do not need a government that sees itself at “war” with its own citizens. But if they do, we should take the highroad none the less and respond with love, respect, working through the courts and electoral process to secure our rights.

Let us recall that Christ has commanded us to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us. It is precisely this commandment that makes the HHS mandate’s conscience exemption untenable. As Christians, we cannot focus only within our own religion. We must reach out in love even to those who scorn us.
We should also recall Christ’s words: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

We are approaching the national Fortnight of Prayer, called for by our bishops. It begins on the vigil of the Feast Day of St. Thomas More, and we should take a lesson from him. Awaiting execution in the Tower of London, St. Thomas More wrote a prayer which we have included in our Knights of Columbus prayer book.
It reads: “Almighty God, have mercy …on all that bear me evil will, And would me harm, And their faults and mine together… vouchsafe to amend and redress, Make us saved souls in heaven together, Where we may ever live and love together with Thee and Thy blessed saints….” Amen.

During the Fortnight of Prayer let us make this prayer too our own.
And as we pray that prayer, let us remember and be good examples of the words of Robert F. Kennedy, who said this when America lost the great Civil Rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another.”

Our greatness as a nation is that we believe in “liberty and justice for all.” Our greatness as a nation is that our government is limited, not limitless. Our greatness as a nation is that we solve our problems through a legal and political process that works.

Today many things may seem to divide us, but our greatness as a nation is in our unity, and that unity has been preserved in large measure because of the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment. For this reason, this issue should not only be important to every Catholic, but to every freedom loving American.

Carl Anderson is the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus and a New York Times bestselling author. His most recent book is Beyond a House Divided: The Moral Consensus Ignored by Washington, Wall Street and the Media.