CLEVELAND — A survey of nearly a dozen members of the South Carolina delegation showed most had never heard of Mark Burns.
But all of them said they were happy the evangelical pastor from the Palmetto State was being given a central role in the Republican National Convention.
Burns gave a three-minute benediction at the conclusion of the first session on the first day at Quicken Loans Arena in which he bellowed thanks to God for “guiding (Donald Trump), giving him the words to the unite the party, this country, that we together can defeat the liberal Democratic Party.”
He’s also been added to the prime-time speaking schedule Thursday evening — the night Trump formally accepts the nomination for president of the United States — to talk about healing after the recent fatal confrontations between black Americans and law enforcement officers.
Burns also happens to be black, and to that end, represents a demographic still noticeably absent from both the Republican Party and the RNC festivities.
Several members of the vastly white South Carolina delegation said they recognize there’s a dire need to do better at bringing minorities into the fold, something that was especially pointed out after Trump’s earlier comments about Muslims and Mexicans.
“This is the party that fits the African-American community more justly than the Democratic Party because we are the most conservative people, the party that upholds all the principles that I think at home, around their dinner tables, they find of value to them,” Steven Blanton, a delegate from Gaffney said. “It’s important we embrace them and show that we care about them.”
“We do not do a good job and we are working on it,” Susan Aiken of Anderson County said of GOP minority outreach efforts. “I have been in the Republican Party over 25 years and we have tried different areas of improvement, but we have got to do better.”
A televangelist who started a Christian television station based out of South Carolina, Burns, of Easley, is a bombastic presence whose introduction of Trump at a campaign stop during the primary season went viral.
In an interview with The Post and Courier on Monday, he said he knew he had a role to play in helping show a different side of the Republican Party.
The party is growing and diversifying more than ever before, he said, and he feels obliged to spread the word that credit should go to Trump. “I know we have a lot of work to be done, and we are still growing,” Burns said of diversity within the GOP. “But Donald Trump has grown the Republican Party more than anyone in this party. He has brought in new people, new faces, new ethnic groups.”
Burns is also emphatic about Trump’s connections to his faith, something conservative Republicans were openly wary about during the primary season.
“It’s amazing how God can use the least likely person to be the voice for him,” he said. “But I do believe, without a doubt, Trump is the voice for God.”
Not everyone in the S.C. Republican delegation, however, is willing to concede to the narrative that the party is not doing enough to attract nonwhite men to the ranks.
“For me, it’s really not about bringing more African-Americans in South Carolina into the Republican Party,” said Glenn McCall, one of South Carolina’s national committee members and one of the only black members of the delegation in Cleveland. “I want them to feel that our candidates care about them and they’re willing to vote for them, and that’s what it’s all about for me.”
McCall said he felt it was important for Republican candidates to talk about how their policies would lift black people out of poverty without resorting to government handouts and welfare.
He also said to look at Gov. Nikki Haley, who is of Indian heritage, and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, who is black, as examples of where the South Carolina GOP is paving the way.
“They certainly are the future of our party,” McCall said.
Reminded they won’t be speaking in Cleveland this week — a signal perhaps of their lack of confidence that Trump can unite Americans regardless of race — McCall replied he was just gratified the offers had been extended, as opposed to not at all.
Burns acknowledged, there was still room for improvement, pointing back to views in South Carolina.
“In my county, Pickens County, there are several groups that are very proud of the rebel flag,” Burns said. “A month ago, in a store in Pickens County, I was refused to buy an appliance. I know where real racism is,” he said, “and it’s not Donald Trump.”
Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.