The word of the week is “mulligan.”
After convincing evidence emerged that President Trump had an assignation with a porn star shortly after the birth of his son to his third wife, and then paid her hush money to keep quiet late in his presidential campaign, Tony Perkins, head of the conservative religious group the Family Research Council, justified his continued support for Trump by saying, “We kind of gave him — ‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here.” The term comes from golf, where, in an informal game, you might spot another player a stroke for an exceptionally poor shot.
The comment has earned howls of derision, and accusations of hypocrisy, from all the expected quarters. But the comparison to a friendly game of golf suggests not hypocrisy exactly, but a considered decision to apply a double standard. It’s entirely reasonable, after all, to hold players in a tournament to a more exacting standard than you would impose on players in a friendly morning game. Similarly, even in a friendly game, you’d treat a new player, or a child, or a close friend differently than you would experienced players whom you didn’t know.
Any one of these comparisons might apply to Trump. In matters of the soul — or, for that matter, the mind or the heart — he is indeed a novice, and in his lack of self-control he has often been compared to a child (though some have complained that the comparison is unfair to children). Moreover, he is, in the transactional parlance of politics, a close personal friend of Tony Perkins and his ilk. If the Almighty judges each of us according to our own capacity, why should not Perkins, if he perceives the president to have limited capacity to avoid temptation, judge him with divine generosity?
Of course, someone who needs mulligans on a regular basis is not the sort of person you’d choose to represent you in a tournament, where such courtesies aren’t permitted. Similarly, however merciful they might be, you wouldn’t expect a conservative Christian to want someone who requires moral mulligans on a regular basis to serve in a position of moral authority.
But that analogy presumes that Trump can only be a successful president if he lives righteously. Perhaps that’s not the case. If it isn’t, shouldn’t religious conservatives be able to partake of the same kind of transactional politics that other groups do? Why should only they be excoriated for making “a deal with the devil” when all they’ve really done is lift up a fallen human being?
Answering that question meaningfully requires first asking how religious conservatives understand the American government.
America’s civic religion tends to speak about this country in providential terms, something President Lincoln was especially eloquent at doing. And conservative Christian denominations and leaders have at times taken that idea very literally indeed. If America is the new Israel, a nation subject to special divine concern, then perhaps our country’s fortunes do rise and fall with the fidelity of our leaders to divine law — much as described in the biblical Books of Kings.
But what does that fidelity consist of? Religious defenders of President Trump have compared the president to King David, pointing out that David not only committed adultery with Bathsheba, but had her husband killed to cover up his indiscretion and make her available to be his latest bride. Nonetheless, David was not deposed, as Saul was. Samuel deposed Saul because he had usurped divine authority in performing sacrifices himself and despoiling the Amalekites rather than obliterating them. David sinned personally, and he remained God’s anointed.
Such defenders are less likely to point out that this does not mean that God granted David a mulligan. His son by Bathsheba died in infancy, and prayer and sacrifice were unavailing to save him. David’s court prophet, Nathan, chastised him in unsparing terms, and as Nathan prophesied, the sword did not depart from David’s house: his son Amnon raped his half-sister, Tamar; Tamar’s brother, Absalom, avenged her by killing Amnon; and then Absalom led a rebellion against his own father, which ended only with Absalom’s own slaying. He also faced another rebellion by the northern Israelite tribes — civil strife extended beyond familial violence. Finally, because his sins, David was not permitted to build God’s temple in Jerusalem. His reign may have remained legitimate, but both he and the nation suffered profoundly because of his personal transgressions.
If America is to be likened to ancient Israel, and Trump to David, then evangelical leaders like Perkins should be trembling at the prospect of similar divine chastisement, regardless of whether Trump loses office. It’s probably not an accident that the religious group most unequivocally committed to the idea that a special providence guides America — the LDS Church, or Mormons — has in fact been the most resistant to fully embracing Trump.
But there is an alternative analogy often floated in evangelical circles: of Trump to Cyrus, the Persian king who restored the Israelite kingdom. This analogy is frequently made in reference to Trump’s support for the modern state of Israel, but also in reference to his relationship to the political order at home. Cyrus, as a Persian king, would never have been expected to personally follow God’s law. Nonetheless, he was used by God to bring about the restoration of God’s kingdom.
In this analogy, though, what is America? Are we Israel? Or are we Persia? The Israelites, after all, not only did not choose Cyrus as their king, but understood him as a foreign leader. If Trump is to compared to Cyrus, then America must be Persia, a polyglot empire, one component of which is under special divine protection, and for whose sake God made Cyrus His instrument.
Perkins, in the same interview cited earlier, called Trump a “transactional president” — someone who appreciates and delivers loyalty. And there’s no reason why a religious group shouldn’t enter into transactional arrangements with powerful leaders who can offer them protection or advancement. That was the time-honored approach of religious minorities like Jews in pre-modern Europe, and arguably still followed by insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects today. But it is not an approach compatible with identification with the nation as a whole — and the nation as being subject to a special providence.
In that sense, Trump represents something of a crossroads for conservative evangelical Christianity in their attitude towards America. Their influence and numbers are too small to be the burgeoning cultural force that many felt they might be less than a generation ago, and they clearly feel the vulnerability of that decline. But their numbers and influence are far too large to accept a retreat into enclaves with a purely transactional relationship with the dominant regime. Trump stands at the edge of possibility — a David-like champion if the tide of the country begins to turn their way, a Cyrus-like protector if America becomes an increasingly foreign place.
In the latter, more likely case, there’s another meaning for mulligan that might prove more apropos: the Irish stew assembled from scraps of meat and old potatoes by homeless tramps in Depression-era encampments. Beggars can’t be choosy with their food, and those who see themselves as beggars aren’t likely to be choosy about the quality of their leadership either.