Where do we encounter the life of God in public? I’m writing this about ten minutes before the polls open in my town; but despite all the God-Talk of both major candidates, I’m not sure a Presidential election is the best place to look for answers to a question like that. For my own part, a better place to start would be the Lincoln Laureate ceremony in Springfield this past Saturday.
As you know by now, Adam Perez is this year’s Trinity Lincoln Laureate. What you may be less sure about is what that means. The award traces back to a New York World’s Fair in 1964, when the State of Illinois made an exhibit of illustrious young citizens to represent the land of Lincoln. It seemed to all involved that this should become regular practice. So, over the past nearly half a century, four-year colleges across our state have been selecting students who practice academic excellence and who embody an ethic of community service. At Trinity, a Lincoln Laureate committee makes recommendations to President Timmermans, who makes the final decision. From each college and university, such students are enrolled into an honorary organization called the Lincoln Academy. They receive a medal that says, Palmam Qui Meruit, Ferat: Let the person who merits bear the palm. So, please make sure to congratulate Adam who bears the palm on our college’s behalf.
On Saturday morning, Adam, his mom, and I drove to the old Capitol building in Springfield—a structure that looks as if it were made out of cement Lincoln Logs—where the ceremony took place in the hall of the Senate. (Each desk where the laureates sat featured a quill and ink bottle.) Besides the undergraduate honorees, there were a goodly number of college presidents wearing full regalia, some scattered professors, and lots of parents. My own identity was ambiguous: one of the hosts for the event thought I was Adam’s father; the person sitting next to me thought I was one of the students.
The ceremony opened with a prayer, though the person praying so resonantly hastened to add that the deity addressed went by many names and conceptions. Then followed a series of thanksgivings and requests that might have fit well in a Sunday-morning service. Despite the familiarity of the phrasing, it was hard for me not to wonder what in the United States of America we thought we were doing, standing there with our heads bowed, reverently facing forward.
Do we really imagine, as we stand there with heads bowed and hands folded, that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ sits attentively in a long line of congenial deities, each of whom is ready to take our prayer like a volunteer in a pledge-drive, hand poised over the phone?
At the end of the ceremony we did the same thing again, as the benediction gave occasion for an artfully worded upwards address. On the way home, Adam and I talked about how we felt grateful to live in a country so dedicated to religious freedom. Adam pointed out that he doesn’t mind that American religious discourse is so devoid of content; it’s a pragmatic necessity in a pluralistic society. But this bland civil religion can be a little disorienting nonetheless, because it is (at least in our country) so similar in its expressions to authentic, historic Christianity. But civil religion encourages quasi-religious practices that seem more intent on sacramentalizing the American political project than on seeking a divine face. During the prayer, it was hard not to feel that the words spoken on what the speaker called “hallowed ground” were both akin to and profound other than Christian confession.
Throughout the ceremony, Lincoln was invoked frequently. The various speakers referred to him with the same kind of regularity and reverence that your minister might refer to Paul or Isaiah. And the comparison is not entirely inept, especially given the wisdom and eloquence of the man who abjured us to live according to what he called the better angels of our nature:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
And perhaps those words remind us of the best place to find the life of the living God in American civil discourse. Thanks to the action of the Holy Spirit in all of human culture, thanks to the pervasiveness of the gospel message, the true religion that St. James refers to—caring for orphans and widows and remaining unspotted by the world—finds voice among us. And for that, thanks be to, yes, God.