A Clash of Knights: The American Proxy War During the Cristero Rebellion

Approx Reading Time: 11 Minutes

The Second Ku Klux Klan reached its apogee in 1926. After its rebirth atop the craggy peaks of Stone Mountain, Georgia in 1915, the “Invisible Empire” quickly rose to become a million man-plus organization with chapters well beyond the Klan’s ancestral homeland in the South. Republican politicians in Maine courted the Klan as a bulwark of Protestant civilization against the growing power of French Canadian Catholics.[1] Elsewhere, in states like Ohio, Indiana, and California, Klan members served as auxiliary agents during Prohibition raids, thus giving official cover to the group’s vigilante activities.[2] In Rhode Island, America’s most Catholic state, two hundred Klansmen got their hands on Springfield rifles and at least one machine gun. This bounty became possible thanks to the active recruit of Klansmen by the Rhode Island First Light Infantry, a state militia company based in the capital of Providence.[3]

Dr. Samuel Green, a Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon,
at Stone Mountain, Georgia

The Klan’s popularity stemmed from its adherence to “100-percent Americanism.” Of course, this term meant different things to different people, but the Klan made it obvious what groups should be excluded from the American body politick. Catholics, Jews, immigrants, blacks, and “class parasites” who promoted “social decadence” were not only barred from the Klan’s ideal America, but were perceived as a threat to the Anglo-Saxon herrenvolk.[4]

One letter writer in the small town of Plainview, Texas told the pulp fiction magazine Black Mask that: “the Ku Klux Klan is the ONLY 100 percent Protestant American organization I know of.”[5] This fact, along with the Klan’s support for the “little guy,” made this anonymous writer proud to belong to the Plainview Klan No. 260, Realm of Texas.

Of course, the Klan’s aggressive promotion of English-speaking Protestants as the only true children of America and the only population without divided loyalties did not go without challenge. Beginning in the 1880s, immigrants from Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe began arriving in the millions to bustling port cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. A little over two decades later, Eastern and Southern Europeans made up a full seventy-percent of America’s immigrant population.[6] A majority of these immigrants belonged to the Roman Catholic faith. Therefore, Catholic political power in the United States became concentrated in the immigrant-heavy tenements of the Northeast and Midwest. By the 1920s, these were the very same areas that resisted Prohibition, voted Catholic Democrats into power as mayors and governors, and, in the Klan’s eyes, epitomized everything that was wrong with the modern world.[7]

Founded by New Haven, Connecticut priest Michael J. McGivney in 1884, the Knights of Columbus quickly rose to become the most influential Catholic organization in America.[8] By the 1920s, Knights of Columbus chapters existed in every American state, five Canadian provinces, and the American possessions of the Philippines and Puerto Rico.[9] The Knights also had “Columbianism,” a socio-political theory first developed by American Catholic Thomas H. Cummings. Columbianism (named after Christopher Columbus) promoted universal Catholic citizenship as an antidote to ethnic tribalism, plus, in the context of the United States, it articulated a vision of a multi-ethnic commonwealth where “fair play” united Anglo-Saxon Protestants and immigrant Catholics.[10]

The first exemplification of the Fourth Degree takes place Feb. 22, 1900 in New York.

The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of Columbus were bound to come into conflict.  The Klan’s vision of the United States completely excluded the Knights of Columbus, while the Columbianism ideal refused to acknowledged the notion that English-speaking Protestants had founded the United States. Propaganda battles between the two sides played out in 1920s Oregon, where a local Klan body hung up posters calling the Knights of Columbus “an Un-American Society Bound to the Pope By Pledges of Treason and Murder.”[11] In Maine, Klansmen countered Columbianism with “Norseman Day,” a celebration meant to celebrate Leif Erikson’s exploration of North America.[12] Erikson’s Norse paganism did not stop Maine Klansmen from hailing him as a Protestant and a better explorer than the Italian Catholic Columbus.

While these two organizations competed for political prestige and sometimes engaged in low-level street fighting, between 1926 and 1929 they both attempted to direct the course of American foreign policy. Specifically, KKK and the Knights of Columbus stood on opposite sides of a civil war in Mexico that became known as the Cristero War.

The roots of the Cristero conflict stretched back into the nineteenth century with the House of Bourbon and their attempts to weaken Rome’s political power in Mexico.[13] The Regalists sought caesaropapism beneath the Rio Grande, but the church proved far more powerful and politically astute than the Bourbons. However, despite the Regalist defeat in the early 1800s, their heirs again took up the mantle of church reform. During the Mexican Revolution, which lasted from 1910 until 1920, Jacobins, anti-clerical labor unionists, and generals in the Mexican Army sought to completely expunge the church from Mexican life. Even among this lot, General Plutarco Elías Calles, who became the fortieth President of Mexico in 1924, distinguished himself as a rabid anti-Catholic.

A son of Northern Mexico, which has long been a hotbed of Protestantism, Freemasons, and a type of libertarian ethos that is more familiar to the American West than the quasi-medieval haciendas of Central Mexico, Calles saw in Catholicism a great impediment to his attempts to completely overhaul Mexico’s identity. Under the catchwords of “order and progress,” Calles “decided to extirpate the Catholic Faith from the soil of Mexico” and replace it with a technocratic socialist nationalism supported by a totalitarian state.[14] Therefore, by invoking certain articles from the decidedly anti-clerical Constitution of 1917, President Calles ordered that all Mexican churches cease public worship on August 1, 1926.

Cristero rebels wearing crucifixes.

This order did not come out of anywhere, for military governors in certain Mexican provinces had been shutting down churches and harassing priests since the Revolution. However, the Calles Law of 1926 officially sanctioned oppression against the church, which made a civil war all but inevitable. A spontaneous uprising mostly backed by peasants in the deeply Catholic states of Jalisco, Michoacan, Zacatecas, and Colima began peacefully protesting the government’s decree. These protests, which even struck in cities like Guadalajara and Mexico City, did not receive much support from either Mexican priests and bishops or the Vatican in Rome. Undeterred, the Cristeros eventually took up arms when the federal government began using violence and repression to enforce church closures.

According to French historian Jean A. Mayer, the majority of the Cristero army was drawn from the ranks of landless agricultural workers. Other classes that joined the fight in significant numbers included manual laborers and skilled craftsmen, muleteers (a catch-all term for ditch-diggers, lime-burners, and other occupations), and share-croppers. Small business owners joined in the fighting too. Surprisingly, despite the religious nature of the rebellion, the Cristero cause sported very few priests.[15] Another irony existed in the form of the greatest Cristero general, Enrique Gorostieta Velarde. A soap manufacturer by trade and a Northerner who had served in the army of General Victoriano Huerta, Gorostieta managed to gain the trust of his men and win significant battles against Mexican troops in Jalisco, Colima, Zacatecas, and Michoacan despite accusations of being a Freemason and anti-clerical in outlook.[16]

The war quickly descended into a bloody stalemate. Despite sending several expeditions and thousands of conscripts into areas of high Cristero concentration, the government forces could never fully defeat the rebellion. Like the Yacqi Wars that also ended in 1929, Mexican soldiers found themselves enmeshed in a colonial war against a determined foe that just so happened to also live in Mexico and have Mexican citizenship.

Despite several proficient generals and the support of the rural population, the Cristeros could not push Federal soldiers out of the cities nor secure much-needed railway lines. Chronically short of cash and reliant on primitive rifles and revolvers, the Cristeros had to resort to hit-and-run tactics that could only prolong, but not win the war. On the political front, the Cristero cause in Mexico was hamstrung by one of its primary creators—the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty. An urban and middle-class movement founded in 1924, the League has often been cited as the inspiration for the rebellion, and yet Meyer and other scholars outside of Mexico have noted that the organization did nothing more than steal money from donors.[17] When the League did direct the Cristero forces, they tended to throw ill-armed peasants into a “meat grinder” made up of government machine guns and artillery.

Cristero soldiers Mexican freedom fighters who rose up against the anti-Catholic laws ride with the banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Christ the King. Depicted here is the San Gaspar regiment, led by Cristero officer Manuel Ramírez de Oliva.

Although also composed of the middle class and urban members, the Mexican Knights of Columbus proved more valuable to the Cristero cause overall. This was due in no small part to the international reach of the Knights. By late 1926, Knights of Columbus members contacted their American peers and established “Home Missions” that ultimately raised one million dollars for the rebels.[18] Senior members of the American clergy, with the full backing of Knights of Columbus chapters in the U.S., even met with Dwight Morrow, the American ambassador to Mexico, in order to reach a peace settlement as early as February 1927.[19]

The biggest contribution to the Cristero cause by American Knights involved immigration. According to Julia G. Young, Knights of Columbus members and American Catholics supported Cristero exiles by encouraging their immigration to places such as San Antonio, El Paso, and Los Angeles, three cities which included large Mexican-American populations.[20] The Knights of Columbus, along with the affiliated Extension Society, raised $25,000 during the three-year war in order to place Cristero refugees in Mexican-American communities.[21]

Critics of the Knights of Columbus, including the Ku Klux Klan and the Mexican government, charged the organization with covertly providing money for weapons and even smuggling said weapons across the border into the hands of Cristero supporters in Northern Mexico. In 1928, a report by the central government charged American and Mexican nuns not only with smuggling pro-Cristero propaganda across the border, but also with arms smuggling along the railroads.[22] While such gun-running never made any real impact on the war (the best weapons in the Cristero army were invariably Spanish Mausers captured from Federal soldiers[23]), it did provide plenty of fuel for the imagination.

For the white-robbed soldiers of the KKK, the idea that an American Catholic organization would provide money and guns to foreign Catholic rebels (to say nothing of encouraging Mexican immigration) was tantamount to a declaration of war. So, according to Meyer in his book La Cristiada, several high-ranking Klansmen reached out to President Calles with an offer of about $10,000 to be used for purchasing weapons. Calles’s government did not accept the offer, and there are few records indicating that Klansmen served as mercenaries in Mexico between 1926 and 1929. Closer to home, in California and Texas, Klansmen harassed and intimated Mexican immigrants and Cristero refugees, some of whom initially took the group’s cross emblem as a welcome sign of Christian fellowship.[24]

Ultimately, neither the Knights of Columbus nor the KKK did much to resolve the Cristero conflict. By 1929, exhaustion had set in Mexico City, and President Emilio Portes Gil, a subordinate to the Jefe Máximo Calles, reached out to the United States and the Catholic Church in order to end the war. By the end of September 1929, the last Cristero soldiers put down their arms and returned to their homes and villages.[25] Most received heroic welcomes when they returned. However, from the point of view of the Mexican government, Catholic political power had been somewhat neutered. During the war, most bishops either remained neutral or sided with the government out of preference. Following the peace agreements of the summer of 1929, the hated Calles Law remained in place but President Gil promised that it would not be enforced. For the most part, this promise would hold, although small-scale anti-clerical violence remained present in Central and Northern Mexico well into the 1940s.

Mexico’s war between Christianity and a modernizing, secular state had a parallel in the conflict between the Ku Klux Klan and the American Knights of Columbus. While both organizations adhere to the Christian religion and both ostensibly believed in a state undergirded by Christian teaching, it was the Klan that actively supported measures that aligned with the secular ideals of the Calles government. For instance, Klansmen in the 1920s rallied to the idea of free public schools that barred religious Catholics from teaching positions.[26] In the Klan’s very own initiation ceremony, members swore to uphold “free public schools” and the liberal Protestant idea of “separation of church and state” as undetachable from traditional American values such as “free speech, “free press,” and the U.S. Constitution.[27]

In Mexico, Calles’s government similarly believed in removing the Catholic Church from education, and propaganda produced by the Mexican military, the CROM trade union, and the National Education System before and immediately after the Cristero conflict sought to instill in Mexican students an inveterate dislike of priests, the Catholic faith, and the Vatican. In one such piece of propaganda, the Christian cross is called “the yoke,” while the Catholic Church is categorically defined as not only foreign (“Roman”) but imperialistic and vampiric.[28]

On the other hand, the Knights of Columbus in both America and Mexico supported parochial schools and political Catholicism (or at least an acceptance of openly Catholic politicians and voting blocs). Similarly, unlike the KKK and the Calles government, both of which adhered to racial nationalism, the Columbianism ideal of the Knights portrayed faith as the only meaningful unifier of people. These differing philosophies characterized the church and state and secular modernism versus traditionalism conflict of the 1920s. This conflict crossed borders, as Catholics and Protestants in the United States became deeply invested in the Cristero conflict raging in Central Mexico. This conflict is still very much with us today, as Islamists in the Middle East seek to unify all Muslims under a single rule, while secular and nationalist regimes in Syria, Egypt, and beyond often rely on force in order to prevent such an ideal from becoming a reality.

Even in the contemporary United States, with the recent upsurge in political populism, the old battle lines between ethnic and civic nationalism, which existed during the conflict between the KKK and the Knights of Columbus, continue to be redrawn by new movements on the Right and Left. If nothing else, the long-forgotten Cristero conflict is one of the twentieth century’s great proxy wars between religion, the state, and non-governmental organizations that seek to increase their power and prestige at home and abroad.

Benjamin WeltonBenjamin Welton is an Appalachian Catholic, Monarchist, Bonapartist (for the US), and supporter of the High Church Anglosphere. He is a freelance writer, PhD student in History, poet, and short-story writer who aspires to write detective novels. He blogs at Fear, Loathing, and Empire and Schloss Orlok. If you enjoyed this article, please buy this author a coffee or lunch here.

[1] Mark Paul Richard, Not a Catholic Nation: The Ku Klux Klan Confronts New England in the 1920s (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015): 34-57.

[2] Linda Gordon, The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2017): 106.

[3] Richard, Not a Catholic Nation, 150.

[4] Sean McCann, Gumshoe America: Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Rise and Fall of New Deal Liberalism (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000): 40.

[5]Black Mask, “Black Mask’s Ku Klux Klan Forum,” September 1, 1923: 123.

[6] Andy McCarthy, “A Brief Passage in U.S. Immigration History,” New York Public Library.com Accessed January 23, 2019 https://www.nypl.org/blog/2016/07/01/us-immigration-history.

[7] Lisa McGirr, The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016): 122.

[8] Christopher J. Kauffman, “The Knights of Columbus: Lay Activism from the Origins through the Great Depression,” U.S. Catholic Historian Vol. 9, No. 3, Labor and Lay Movements: Part One (Summer 1990): 261.

[9] Kauffman, 262.

[10] Thomas H. Cummings, “Editorial,” Columbiad (November 1893): 2.

[11]” Conflict in Paradise: The Oregon Knights of Columbus vs. the Ku Klux Klan, 1922-1925.” Faith Patterns. December 17, 2014. Accessed January 24, 2019. https://www.faithpatterns.com/ 2014/12/02/conflict-in-paradise-the-oregon-knights-of-columbus-vs-the-ku-klux-klan-1922-1925/.

[12] Richard, Not a Catholic Nation, 24.

[13] Jean A. Meyer, The Cristero Rebellion: The Mexican People between Church and State, 1926-1929. Trans. by Richard Southern (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976): 2.

[14] Ernest Largarde, Foreign Affairs (Paris, 18 September 1926): 6.

[15] Meyer, The Cristero Rebellion, 86.

[16] While Meyer states that Gorostieta came from an anti-clerical family and belonged to the Freemasons, more recent historians have cast doubt on their assertions.

[17] Meyer, The Cristero Rebellion, 76.

[18] Meyer, The Cristero Rebellion, 76.

[19] Meyer, The Cristero Rebellion, 61.

[20] Julia G. Young, “Cristero Diaspora: Mexican Immigrants, the U.S. Catholic Church, and Mexico Cristero War, 1926-1929,” The Catholic Historical Review Vol. 98, No.2 (April 2012): 271-300.

[21] Malachy McCarthy, Which Christ Came to Chicago: Catholic and Protestant Programs to Evangelize Socialize, and Americanize the Mexican Emigrant, 1900-1940 (PhD diss., Loyola University of Chicago, 2002): 198.

[22] Young, “Cristero Diaspora,” 290.

[23] Meyer, The Cristero Rebellion, 119.

[24] Michael Newton, White Robes and Burning Crosses: A History of the Ku Klux Klan from 1866 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016): 82.

[25] Meyer, The Cristero Rebellion, 201.

[26] Richard, Not a Catholic Nation, 26-27.

[27] Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009): 409.

[28] Meyer, The Cristero Rebellion, 30.

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John Tuttle
John Tuttle
3 years ago

Love this! It’s an expansive and informative examination of an engrossing struggle between the KKK and the Knights of Columbus and their clashing views on numerous issues including the Cristeros. One of the best history articles I’ve ever read!