When the Past Becomes the Present: Reflections on the Burden of History and the Price of Liberty

An Essay taken From Conscience to Liberty: Diverse Long Island Families
in a Crucible that Gave Rise to Religious Freedom</sp

Essay by © Margery Boyden, Scudder Association Foundation Historian
Shared with permission to the Scudder Association Foundation, March 9, 2022

Freedom Square Kharkiv, across-the-square

Freedom Square Kharkiv,[2] before March 1, 2022

BBC Freedom Square After Bombing

Freedom Square Kharkiv, after a missile strike, March 1, 2022[3]

Tanks are again menacing, and bombs are falling, and people are again fighting for their liberties or fleeing for their lives. Images recall horrific pasts, giving clarity to present chaos, reminding of millions who have fought for freedom or have been refugees in search of freedom. For millennia, there have been countless exiles from war or persecution, or soldiers engaged in the age-old struggle over whether humans may have freedom to choose life, liberty, and peace, or be trampled into submission to the will of tyrants. Now, in an unthinkable rerun, it is most painful for Ukrainians suffering a grim repeat of their prior history. To understand the present carnage in Ukraine, one must look to the complicated past.  Excerpts from the Afterword of my recent book have chilling relevance to this current conflict in the Ukraine. I now quote from pages 726–732, 748–749 and 754–755:


Statue of Liberty[4]

The Statue of Liberty stands in New York harbor almost withinsight of the 1660s farm of a religious exile, the immigrant John2 Scudder (Thomas1), located near the head of Maspeth Creek adjoining Newtown Creek in what is now in the western corner of Queens. The statue’s majestic, welcoming pose is a stark contrast to symbols of 16th–20th century European pomp and power and oppression. Emma Lazarus’s sonnet with its words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” remains graven on a tablet in the base of the statue. Emma’s words beckon with a compassionate spirit of inclusion rather than hostility, exclusion, or persecution.While not all who suffer can be adequately accommodated within its borders, Americans can care to relieve suffering at home and abroad with a humane, more inclusive spirit.

The United Nations Refugee Agency in June 2019 announced, “We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record, 70.8 million,” [5] due to religious persecution, war, corruption, and violence. [Updated to 82.4 in June 2021 and growing daily.] For our planet and its people, it is now urgent to remove from our world’s history the barbaric burdens perpetuated by “man’s inhumanity to man”—to not retreat from the gains that have been made over the last 500 years by recreating unnecessary burdens for people of faith that were heroically removed by the U.S. Bill of Rights nearly 250 years ago (or by the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

Knowing that full liberty for all was more than could be achieved by just one generation, Dr. Nathaniel Scudder’s pen implored those who follow to continue to investigate the truths of religious and civil liberties articulated by his founding generation, and those who have benefitted in any way from their labors and sacrifices should not forget or slack or rest until true freedom reigns at home and abroad.[6] No generation has a free ride to continual blessings of freedom.

With visibly, staggering consequences of 21st century “man’s inhumanity to man” filling refugee camps and displacing unprecedented millions from their homes around the world, this is no time to quench the spirit within faith communities or their resources. These make significant voluntarily sacrifices to administer relief. Spirit ignites conscience to see and feel this empathy.

“The story of ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’ is the burden of History…but [has] never been so degrading and humiliating as those which have bound the larger freedom of worship.”[7] If those who seek to bind the larger freedom of worship in the United States succeed, they will impede a significant portion of voluntary humanitarian outreach happening at home and globally.

Observations and Reflections about the Price and Prize of Liberty

If I were asked what I learned from writing this book, and from the people within its pages, I have learned to not take liberty for granted. History of the past 500 years is a formidable witness that religious persecution begins with intolerance, bigotry and religious discrimination against a particular religion or people of faith or even religion in general. Historically, religious prejudice easily escalates into marginalizing, then persecution and violence. In the 20th century wars and genocides, prejudice affected many millions. It is a global problem today. History repeatedly shows that religious freedom is the most effective antidote to this destructive pattern.

A few decades ago, I stepped out of my comfort zone and saw for myself why freedom to have religion and free access to its sacred texts matters deeply and why religious freedom continues to urgently matter today. It protects the core of self-identity and integrity of millions while protecting rights of all. Having known the effect on my own family’s history, I was intrigued to learn more about the value of religious freedom from a remarkable immigrant friend of mine. She and her family immigrated to America in the early 1980s during a small window of opportunity when authorities in the former Soviet Union allowed some Jews to emigrate. For their safety, my friends took this welcome option to become 20th century religious exiles.

Soon after they arrived in our neighborhood, we became friends, or, as we frequently said to one another, “more like relatives.” From observing this family, I learned much about the heartache and challenges of an immigrant who suffers homesickness and loneliness while adjusting to a new land and to a new language and culture. Language was the biggest barrier. Some changes for my friends were easy, such as enjoying the abundance and variety of foods our supermarkets had to offer in stark contrast to the Soviet Union. In their native land, they had often spent many hours waiting in long lines to purchase only a few items at a small store from whatever was left by the time it was their turn. Even with daily food there was little choice.

It was not until they were in America that my friend and her family could freely attend synagogue where they found a welcoming community that helped them to become established in their new land. They were delighted to learn more about the religion of their forefathers, having been previously intimidated by the state to be atheists. Their faith enriched us as we visited the synagogue with them for special occasions. We admired their religion’s reverence for its holy books and their synagogue’s welcoming and generous stance towards these immigrants.

To share with them in like manner, my husband and I invited these friends to go to the open house of a newly constructed church edifice that was of importance to us in our faith, which is different than theirs. This outing was nearly a decade before the Iron Curtain parted. As we stood in line waiting to enter for the tour, I said hopefully to my Russian immigrant friend, “Someday there will be a building like this in your country.” She said very emphatically, “This I cannot believe! The only thing they know how to build is the gulag!”

My friend confirmed much of what I had heard about life in the Soviet Union. At school my friend said she was taught to be an atheist and the topic of religion at home was taboo. This was not necessarily because of disinterest, but because older generations feared that any religious talk might be reported to the authorities.There were well-understood consequences for discussing religion, such as unexplained disappearances, incarcerations, and even death. One time when my friend needed emotional comfort, she reported to me that her grandmother looked at her intently as if to say, “Now understand what I mean! It’s important!” Then, all in one gesture, she looked up and pointed heavenward, and then she touched her finger to her own lips as if to say, “Hush. Don’t speak of this.” What kind of spirit imposed such a suppressive environment even in one’s own home? This kind of providential comfort was needed when her family was forced to flee their home due to the German invasion in World War II.

Helen Rappaport notes that this suppression began as a form of Secularism. The Bolsheviks “after the revolution…sought to supplant religious faith with a new religion—atheistic nationalism—making this, and not the Russian Orthodox Church, the focal point for collective aspirations.” They “inaugurated a vigorous propaganda campaign intended to eradicate religious practice of every kind.” They encouraged anti-Semitism as well as religious persecution of other faiths.[8] The promise of totalitarianism was to give its citizenry everything they wanted, but its reality was subjection to unlimited governmental authority and times of fear and misery.

A serious casualty of living under totalitarianism is truth. My friend, a woman of great integrity and skill, had been uncomfortable with the lies, being commanded to falsify statistics on reports at work to meet Soviet targets. My friend expressed, as so many immigrants have done, “We came to America for our family and for the truth.” This may be difficult to fully appreciate today in an age when opinion or political spin may be regarded on a par with truth.It was hard to completely comprehend the pain of the gulag, or the full meaning of her statements about religious suppression, until I saw for myself the reality of some of its effects. These results validated words of Alecksandr Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn became personally well acquainted with life in the gulag. Solzhenitsyn in his 1983 lecture “Godlessness: the First Step to the Gulag,”[9] provides a view of what it is like to live in a society without religious freedom and without religion—a sobering contrast to the fruits of liberty derived from the American Revolution that I was enjoying. Solzhenitsyn states, “The world had never before known a godlessness as organized, militarized, and tenaciously malevolent as that practiced by Marxism.” Solzhenitsyn considers that it was his leaders’ “hatred of God” that was “the principal driving force, more fundamental than all their political and economic pretensions.” The next step is hatred of believers. “Hatred of God” is strong wording but captures the spirit behind what he experienced as he lived through it. His description is a voice of warning that merits attention:

I have spent well-nigh fifty years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened….

The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century.[10] (Italics added.)

The consequences for forgetting God were severe. These crimes included world wars that killed many millions of people and brought about the absence of freedom to many millions more. The crimes to which he refers were fueled by a frame of mind present in totalitarian regimes with the deadliest being Nazi Germany and Stalinist USSR. Both were described in the 1950s as “political” or “secular” religions. Seeing their destructiveness, it is puzzling why some still promote “political or secular religions” with their same old traps and snares. As Raymond Aron writes in The Opium of the Intellectuals: “In defending the freedom of religious teaching the unbeliever defends his own freedom.”[11] Roger Kimball adds that “Enlightened thinking tends to be superficial thinking because its critical armory is deployed against every faith except its faith in the power of reason.” Aron, in what has been called his masterpiece of political reflection, argues: the social order needs more than to depend on mere manmade virtue to inspire and a naïve hope that man would always operate without self-interest as a core motive. Aron warns that rulers who “promise everything” more likely “tend to deliver misery and impoverishment.”[12]

Alecksandr Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918, six months after his father was killed in war at the German front.[13] Having spent many years in the gulag, Solzhenitsyn had >ample time and motivation to contemplate issues of liberty and bondage and of the forces that took the lives of sixty million of his countrymen. These forces literally blew up churches and murdered clerics in an effort to expunge religion and killed millions of people to silence their consciences.[14]

All these Christian martyrs went unswervingly to their deaths for the faith….For tens of millions of laymen access to the Church was blocked, and they were forbidden to bring up their children in the Faith: religious parents were wrenched from their children and thrown into prison, while the children were turned from the faith by threats and lies.[15]

After dissolution of the Soviet Union, Alexander Yakolev, “the intellectual father of glasnost,” validated the words of Solzhenitsyn. In his official capacity, he “shone a spotlight on the horrors of Soviet history, exposing the secrets of the Gulag, the mass executions, the millions who died in slave camps and prisons.” Yakolev’s investigations found that “More than 85,000 Orthodox priests were shot in 1937 alone,”[16] all part of the plan to rid the U.S.S.R of religion. For those who observed these times, the term “freedom from religion” rightly has sinister meaning.

In his imprisoned deprivation, and with the specter of atomic war also hanging its pall over all of humankind during his era, Sohlzenitsyn had every reason to befriend God. He adds,

Our life consists not in the pursuit of material success but in the quest for worthy spiritual growth. Our entire earthly existence is but a transitional stage in the movement toward something higher, and we must not stumble and fall, nor must we linger fruitlessly on one rung of the ladder. Material laws alone do not explain our life or give it direction. The laws of physics and physiology will never reveal the indisputable manner in which the Creator constantly, day in and day out, participates in the life of each of us, unfailingly granting us the energy of existence; when this assistance leaves us, we die. And in the life of our entire planet, the Divine Spirit surely moves with no less force: this we must grasp in our dark and terrible hour.[17]  (Italics added.)

Solzhenitsyn proposes that there will be times of personal and global uncertainty, when we realize that manmade philosophies will fail us. He encourages that we need to make

 …a determined quest for the warm hand of God, which we have so rashly and self-confidently spurned….[When] there is nothing else to cling to…the combined vision of all the thinkers of the Enlightenment amounts to nothing.”[18] (Italics added.)

As a tourist, I saw evidence of what freedom from religion looks like and better understood Solzhenitsyn’s terrible challenges. I also saw some who had been denied access to religion resolutely reaching for the “warm hand of God.” Shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, I stood with my friend in her native land at a succession of empty sites, evidence of the Soviets’ atheistic attempts to demolish God and religion, religious buildings, and religious persons. In various cities of the former Soviet Union, these sites had once been the grounds of ancient and beautiful Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches before being blown up by Stalin’s regime. Imagine my surprise when we toured the Kremlin grounds and visited five churches still standing within its walls. Now serving mostly as museums, they reveal the aged heart of Russian culture.

As I had prepared for my trip to the former Soviet Union, I considered what I might take as gifts for new friends I might meet. As this journey was only six months after Russians had become “free,” I thought that a Bible printed in the Russian language might be an appreciated gift.  It might give access to scriptures to a few to whom access had been denied. When I had only one book left to give, I hoped to find someone who really desired it, someone who would treasure its message of hope. Then a beautiful Russian woman stepped forward with her request. I could feel that she truly hungered to receive the book. She was older than I and had lived her entire life under Soviet rule until the USSR had broken apart six months previously. With her new freedom, she expressed her earnest desire for the book. As she reached to take the book from my outstretched hand, I saw the light in her eyes and felt warm light encompass both of us as I handed her my last Russian copy of the Bible. We could not communicate through words, but I knew she would read it. Somehow, even with access having been denied, she could in that moment feel that God’s word had power to bless her life. I hoped that as she read, she would grasp “the warm hand of God” for that warm hand is connected to the arm of mercy that has a mighty power to lift, to heal and to comfort and to deliver. Many who have taken that outstretched arm of mercy attest that it offers inner peace, life, liberty, and happiness that surpass all earthly understanding. In times of adversity, it is the one hand and arm with endless supply.[19]

During this visit, I personally saw how different the consequences of the Soviet version of “freedom from religion” were to results that flow from the freedom of religion—especially freedom of Choice. The ancient prophet Isaiah describes the inviting and inclusive “spirit” of the Author of true liberty even to those who reject God. For even to them, His merciful, loving “hand is stretched out still.”[20] The choice to take that hand or not belongs to each person. For some of my new Russian friends, it was the dawn following a long dark night of seventy years.

From this experience, I better understood the immigrants in my own ancestry who had come to America seeking religious freedom and to escape the evil spirit of persecution and suppression in other countries where they had lived. They too, like many immigrants today, came to America, as my immigrant friend expressed, for a better life for their family and for the truth. Now up to fourteen generations of religious exiles to America have left records and accounts to illustrate that in the lives of every-day people, religious freedom really does matter….

Reflecting on what I have learned from my immigrant friends reminds me to be grateful for the sacrifices and labors of many preceding generations that produced the good we do have. Ingratitude focuses us on resentment for what we, or our predecessors, suffered or for what we don’t have yet, inviting negative passions that may prevent positive outcomes. Ingratitude obscures one’s ability to see with compassion that most others also feel pain…. Most of us have suffered injustices or have ancestors who did. Will we dwell on these negatives and retaliate, or will we let these memories serve to remind all of us that:

Liberty is very fragile and highly prized by all who have ever been without it.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt reminds us:

Our modern democratic way of life has its deepest roots in our great common religious tradition, which for ages past has taught to civilized mankind the dignity of the human being, his equality before God, and his responsibility in the making of a better and fairer world.

Everywhere in the world there are men of stout heart and firm faith now engaged in a great spiritual struggle to test whether that ancient wisdom is to endure, or whether it must give way to the older, discarded doctrine that some few men shall dominate multitudes of others and dictate to them their thinking, their religion, their living. This conflict has found its most terrible expression in a war which has now engulfed a large portion of humanity. In its more peaceful aspects, the same struggle also pervades all efforts of men of good will who are seeking through democracy the way to the world to come.

In teaching this democratic faith to American children, we need the sustaining, buttressing aid of those great ethical religious teachings which are the heritage of our modern civilization. For ‘not upon strength nor upon power, but upon the spirit of God’ shall our democracy be founded.[21]

                —  Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1940
Scudder descendant and
President of the United States of America

End of Quote, From Conscience to Liberty

Were my eye-opening experiences of nearly 30 years ago relevant to the current evil business of Putin’s “denazification” of a peaceful Ukraine? A Ukraine which allows for religious freedom and a Jewish president.

Roger Grim is the head of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation that studies the role of restrictive religious policies by governments around the world and the effects on business and economic development. He also assists the Pew Research Center. His recent article, “Severely Restricting Religious Freedom Predicts War,” discusses the relevant role of Russia’s restrictive policies on religion to the wars in which Russia is engaged in Syria and Ukraine. Grim writes:

Russia’s military might — unleashed by Putin on Ukraine — is deplorable. Many factors contribute to this or any war: economic or territorial gain, nationalism, revenge, civil discord, religion, to name a few. One that is usually overlooked is the role of government restrictions on religious freedom…

Religion is also a motivation in Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine. This time, it’s pitting Russia’s brand of Orthodox Christianity again Ukraine’s, which has separated from the Russian hierarchy….

What I would point out is that it is not religion in general, but the government restrictions on religion that are the predictor of whether a state will be predisposed to starting a war.

In an award-winning 2007 research article (which I co-authored and which we fleshed out in a 2011 Cambridge University book), we empirically showed that it was not “religion” in general that led to violent religious persecution and conflict, but it was the level of social regulation of religion (SRI) the level of government restrictions on religion (GRI) that led to violent persecution and/or religion-related conflict.[22]

In 2010, Brian Grim co-authored with Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge Studies in Social Theory, Religion and Politics), published by Cambridge University Press. This book informs how restrictions by governments on religious freedom and dissent for conscience’s sake are “bad for business.” Since then Pew Research Center invited Grim to establish “their annual global studies to plot levels of restrictions on religion by nations that led to violent persecution and or/religion-related conflict. The Pew Research Center report in 2019 shows that of the European nations, only Russia scored “very high” for religious restrictions and hostilities in Europe.

Brian Grim’s recent article, “Severely Restricting Religious Freedom Predicts War,” offers informative links. https://religiousfreedomandbusiness.org/2/post/2022/03/severely-restricting-religious-freedom-predicts-war.html.

© 2019 Margery Boyden

[1] A narrative cultural history by Margery Boyden, From Conscience to Liberty: Diverse Long Island Families in a Crucible that Gave Rise to Religious Freedom, 1526–1664, v. 1, Part B, (Published by the author, October 2021), chapters 35 and Afterword. See book description at Scudder Association Foundation Family Store, Books, http://old.scudder.org/product/from-conscience-to-liberty/.

[2] Shmuliko, “Kharkov Freedom Square,” 2003, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kharkov_Freedom_Square.jpg.

[4] Laslovarga, “New York City Statue of Liberty,”2007, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:0327New_York_City_Statue_of_Liberty.JPG. (Accessed 8/9/2017.)

[5] “Figures at a Glance,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, The United Nations Refugee Agency, June 2019, https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html.  (Accessed 9/26/2019.) The figure in March 2022 is now over 85 million.

[6] See Introduction, p. 6–7. Also Salter’s History of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, 52. Example: Since 1819, more than 4 generations of Dr. Scudder’s descendants have combined efforts to equal 1100 years of service to aid India.

[7] Bicknell,14.

[8] Helen Rappaport, Joseph Stalin: A Biographical Companion, (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1999), 223.

[9] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “Godlessness: the First Step to the Gulag,” Templeton Prize Lecture, 10 May 1983, London.


[11] See Raymond Aron, The Opium of the Intellectuals, (Garden City: N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957).  See review by Roger Kimball, “The Opium of the Intellectuals,” The New Criterion, volume 34, no. 10 (June 2016), https://www.newcriterion.com/posts.cfm/opium-of-intellectuals-3786. (Accessed 8/9/2017.)

[12]Aron, “The Opium of the Intellectuals.” as reported by Kimball in The New Criterion, fn54.

[14] Solzhenitsyn, “Godlessness: the First Step to the Gulag.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Geoffrey York, “Why father of glasnost is despised in Russia,” The Globe and Mail, March 9, 2001, updated April 10, 1918, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/why-father-of-glasnost-is-despised-in-russia/article22399254/.

[17] Solzhenitsyn, “Godlessness: the First Step to the Gulag.”

[18] Ibid.

[19] Numbers 6:26, Job 22:21, Psalm 85:8, Isaiah 26:3–4, Old Testament, Holy Bible; John 14, John 16:33, Romans 8:6, 1 Corinthians 14:33, Galatians 5:22, Philippians 4:7, Hebrews 12:14, James 3:7, 18, New Testament, Holy Bible; Quran 1:2–3, 17:110, 59:22–24.

[20] Isaiah 5:25; 9:12, 17, 21; 10:4, Old Testament, Holy Bible.

[21] Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “Letter on Religion in Democracy,” December 16, 1940, The American Presidency Project, University of California at Santa Barbara, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/letter-religion-democracy. Italics added.

[22] Brian Grim, “Severely Restricting Religious Freedom Predicts War,” Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, March, 1, 2022, https://religiousfreedomandbusiness.org/2/post/2022/03/severely-restricting-religious-freedom-predicts-war.html. Chris Baronavski, et al. “Religious restrictions around the world, Pew Research Center, September 30, 2021, https://www.pewforum.org/essay/religious-restrictions-around-the-world/

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