Many in the United States don’t think twice about their religious freedoms unless something comes up that puts that liberty in jeopardy.
But for Dr. Derek Davis, professor of humanities, business and education, religious liberty is constantly on his mind.
His recently published book, The Oxford Handbook of Church and State in the United States comes after many years of work on the subject.
Traveling to many eastern European countries after the fall of communism during the ’90s, Davis worked on a team advising new emerging governments on religious liberty.
“They had so little experience with all these questions about law, about economics, about the capitalist free market society, and about things like the relationship between religion and government,” he said.
The idea of church-state relations was new to many countries because of the atheistic nature of the Soviet Union.
As churches reemerged, the governments were part of the shattered Soviet Empire forced to deal with the issue.
“In Russia, for example, during the Soviet period of about 70 years, they closed about 95% of its churches and made them become gymnasiums and hotels and warehouses,” Davis said.
He worked with a team of about six to educate eastern European leaders on how to incorporate freedom of religion into their government systems, which were still in a transitional state.
“Sometimes we had good success; sometimes we had no success; sometimes they wouldn’t even let us in the country,” he said.
Out of all the countries he worked in, Davis remembers Russia as his favorite and still has many good friends there.
He said, “I got to know a lot of Russian history and began to read a lot of Russian literature. It helped break down some of the stereotypical things that I had been taught about Russia when I was in school that just weren’t true.”
The dread of Russia he had grown up with turned into respect, and Davis became fascinated with the country and its people.
“We walked around in fear for about seven or eight years back in the ’60s. We used to have bomb drills in school where we would go through an official bomb attack,” he said.
“As it turned out, not all the Russians were atheist. Many Russians had a deep faith and never abandoned it. They never wanted to take over the world as I had been taught as a schoolboy,” he said. “That was the biggest surprise to me out of the whole thing and was probably the most enjoyable experience that I had.”
Not only has he published 17 books and numerous articles on the subject, but he has also testified before Congress on cases concerning religious liberty.
Davis also runs the Center for Religious Liberty at UMHB, working with Associate Professor of history and political science Dr. David Holcomb and Associate Professor of business Dr. Marty McMahone to provide information on religious freedom.
Holcomb serves as the associate director of the center and sometimes writes articles for the organization.
“We publish occasional editorials that are sent out to media outlets. We also have a list of publications that can be downloaded from our website,” he said.
The Center for Religious Liberty (http://academics.umhb.edu/crl/about-center-religious-liberty) is a free online resource, open to any interested in general or specific issues of religious freedom.
One area in which Davis is interested is the persecution of religious minorities and the laws in place that are supposed to ward against discrimination.
He said, “In defending religious freedom, you’re not just defending religious freedom for Christians but really for all different religious groups. That includes a lot of religious minorities who are persecuted in different places around the world.”
Though Davis is particularly invested in the area of church-state studies and religious liberty, he believes it is a subject in which everyone should have some knowledge and interest.
“For most people, not everyone, but for a lot of people, religion is what defines them. It’s how they define what they are, what their obligations are, what their duties are, what their morals and values are,” Davis said. “If it’s that important in shaping people’s lives, it’s important that governments protect that right to live out his or her religious beliefs.”
Even though Davis has spent countless hours studying, speaking and writing on the subject, he said, “There’s no end to this. I still haven’t figured it all out, and I never will. It’s just too deep and too complex.”