David J. Hedspeth November/December 1998 One afternoon in the late 1950s, while helping my mother tidy up our rural Baptist church in the Missouri Ozarks, I came across a packet of tracts on separation of church and state published by an organization called Americans United for Separation for Church and State. I was very young, and I asked my mother what separation of church and state meant. Though I don't recall everything she said, the one thing that sticks out in my mind is her words, "Remember, the government cannot tell you how to worship."

Our community was almost religiously homogeneous at that time. Most of the active churchgoers were some variety of Baptist. At the one-room school I attended there was only one family of Catholic kids. Very little formal religious instruction took place there. On a couple occasions over the years a man from the American Bible Society made presentations. When he left, the Catholic children would comment at recess that he did not recite the Lord's Prayer correctly and that his Bible read wrong. Even as a child I could sense the conflict in using the public school for evangelistic purposes.

A decade later I was a draftee in the Army stationed in the eastern United States. I was a "holdover" in a training company for several months because my personnel records had been lost and I could not be shipped overseas until all documents were in order. Chapel attendance was a must for me, and each Sunday morning I arose, put on my dress green uniform, and headed for the small chapel that served our company area. Sunday afternoons were spent with my law books at the Fort Dix library (I had enrolled to read law from Blackstone School of Law by correspondence while serving in the Army).

One day I received a message that the chaplain wanted me to be an usher at the main chapel. There was to be a special service, and personnel who attended the various small chapels were needed to assist. I volunteered and made sure that I was properly dressed. I arrived early, and the chapel was nearly empty. The only people there were three or four soldiers of specialist E-5 or above. As a private first class I was to follow their directives. One of the specialists was at the telephone in the vestibule coordinating the service.

Soon busloads of soldiers began arriving. I immediately concluded that these were basic training troops. They had "bone head" haircuts, and their fatigues were so new that the creases in the pants where they had been folded and packaged were still evident. The young soldiers appeared disoriented and tired, as raw trainees generally are the first days of basic training. Drill sergeants instructed the men to line up and file into the chapel in single file.

I concluded that some of the men were Catholic, because they genuflected before being seated in the pews. An occasional trainee would hurry by, holding a small black skullcap to the top of his head, there being insufficient hair to keep the cap in place. These were Jewish trainees. The chapel filled rapidly, and the specialist on the telephone canceled some buses. "We don't need any more," he said. "The chapel is full." True to military form the pews were exactly filled; I had difficulty finding a place to sit because I had been standing while the buses unloaded.

The speaker was from Bob Jones University, an independent Baptist school. There was an excellent pianist, also from the university. The sermon was Baptist, and an invitation was given afterward to those who desired to go forward and make spiritual decisions.

During the service I helped with the offering collection, and afterward we counted the money. I suppose that the offering went into the chapel fund. Actually the plates yielded very little, because basic trainees are not encouraged to carry money. The specialists cursed and used God's name in vain as the money was counted. Being inexperienced with this task, they were frustrated. They were upset also because they had to be there that night and do extra duty. I showed them how my father, who was church treasurer back home, would stack the coins in one dollar columns before making the final count.

After the service concluded, the soldiers vacated the building in single file. Drill sergeants barked orders to "double-time" to the buses. In just a few minutes the bus doors closed, the air brakes hissed to off position, and they were gone. Only the stench of the smoke from the diesel engines lingered in the night air.

In a back room a reception had been set up for the speaker and his team. All attendees were invited. Had the basic trainees been expected to have attended, it would have required a New Testament miracle: the cake might have possibly served two dozen people, despite the fact that hundreds of soldiers had been seated in the sanctuary just moments earlier. I visited briefly with the guests and left.

On my way back to the barracks I concluded that the soldiers had been rounded up and bused to the chapel in order to create a full house. No consideration was made of their religious preferences. Jews and Catholics were forced to attend a Protestant service. Orders came down to make a good showing by filling the house--and, true to orders, it was filled.

My guess is that the guests from Bob Jones University did not know what had happened. I believe that they thought that the attendees came of their own free volition. I have often wondered what the non-Protestants thought. The non-Baptists? Did they think this was just another part of basic training harassment? Did they think that this was an attempt to show who was in control? What would I have thought had I been ordered to attend a Jewish service?

I have shared this account with a number of people over the years, many of whom didn't seem to share the sense of regret that I have about the episode. Maybe it is because they have not endured basic training and do not know what it means to be subjected to drill sergeants' commands. Maybe they do not know what persecution is. Many Southern Baptists with whom I associate do not realize that Baptists themselves were persecuted during the formative years of our country. Yet many want to go back to "what our founding fathers believed in." They fail to understand the difference between voluntary religious practice and state-mandated religious practice (which is what happens, for instance, when religious indoctrination takes place during public school classtime. They rely on the statements of popular political and religious leaders rather than on a sound personal understanding of the New Testament and a sound understanding of American history.

When Jesus said that He would draw all men unto Himself, did He mean to use a few drill sergeants to get the job done? I must admit that my meager witness in the barracks was much less dramatic than what I had observed that memorable night at the chapel. Which method would Jesus honor?

I remember a story I was told about my family. During the Civil War, with all the skirmishes between Confederate and Union forces in our community, our church closed its doors for several months. I have often felt that it is ironic what my grandfather experienced the day when he was kept from church because of fear of the military, and what I witnessed the day when individuals were forced to go to church by the military.

There are many uncertain areas in the church-state debate. Many issues that aren't crystal clear. But all things considered, I believe that my mother understood it well when on that afternoon, many decades ago in rural Missouri, she said, "Remember, the government cannot tell you how to worship."

David J. Hedspeth is a judge in the Carter Country Circuit Court in Van Buren, Missouri

Article Author: David J. Hedspeth