Donald Trump told Americans he would solve their country's problems in accepting the Republican Party's nomination for president Thursday (July 21) but appeared unable to bridge the divide over his candidacy among Southern Baptists and other evangelical Christians.
Trump closed the GOP convention in Cleveland with a nearly 75-minute speech in which he promised to restore law and order to the United States and to repair the "rigged" political system. "Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it," the New York businessman and reality TV star told Republican delegates and a national viewing audience.
"I am your voice," Trump told viewers more than once. "I am with you. I will fight for you, and I will win for you."
Trump, however, failed to mention abortion, traditional marriage, freedom of conscience and additional moral, social issues important to Southern Baptists and other evangelicals.
Trump's omissions came after Republicans adopted a comprehensively pro-life, strongly conservative platform regarding moral and religious freedom issues on the first day of their convention. His speech also came less than a week after he named a social conservative, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, as his running mate.
The split among some Southern Baptist leaders on Trump continued to manifest itself before and after his acceptance speech. Some Southern Baptists and other evangelicals have supported Trump in the primaries or plan to vote for him in the general election as an alternative to Clinton.
Others, many using the hashtag #NeverTrump, say they are refusing to vote for either major party candidate. They have declared that their opposition to Trump will continue through the general election because of what they describe as his untrustworthiness on moral and religious liberty issues and offensive rhetoric.
Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and a Trump supporter, said on Twitter after the GOP nominee's speech, "Tonight the world witnessed the @realDonaldTrump I've come to know. Strong. Decisive. Compassionate."
Jeffress expressed optimism about what Southern Baptists and others will do by the November election.
"I believe you are seeing evangelical Christians coalescing around Donald Trump--primarily because of the influence the next president will have on the selection" of Supreme Court justices, Jeffress told Baptist Press in written comments.
Sen. Ted Cruz's speech Wednesday in which he refused to endorse Trump but urged voters to follow their conscience "crystalized this binary choice we have in November between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton," Jeffress said. "If Christians are going to do what Cruz suggested and 'not stay home in November' and also oppose the radical policies of Hillary Clinton, what choice do they have except to vote for Trump?"
Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, a Baptist school in Lynchburg, Va., described Trump as a "true patriot" in a convention speech prior to Trump's.
A vote for Trump is a vote for "conservative, pro-life justices to the Supreme Court," Falwell told delegates. A conservative's decision either not to vote or to vote for a third-party candidate is "a de facto vote" for socially liberal presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Falwell said.
Other Southern Baptists, however, said after Trump's speech nothing had changed for them--they still would not vote for the Republican nominee in spite of Clinton's advocacy for abortion rights and other liberal policies.
"I have heard nothing tonight that would persuade me to change my mind & vote 4 @realDonaldTrump," Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, tweeted. "The saddest political situation in my life."
Denny Burk, the new president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate school of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said #NeverTrump should not be finished.
"The party belongs to him, and the GOP as we have known it is officially dead," Burk wrote in a blog post Friday (July 22).
"If ever the country needed its statesmen to be men of courage, it is right now. ... I ask you not to make your peace with the convention's outcome. You should actively oppose the candidate through the general election," Burk wrote.
During his speech, Trump expressed gratitude to the "evangelical and religious community," saying, "I'll tell you what, the support they've given me--and I'm not sure I totally deserve it--has been so amazing and has had such a big reason for me being here tonight.
"They have much to contribute to our politics, yet our laws prevent you from speaking your minds from your own pulpits," he said, referring to the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law that bars churches and other tax-exempt organizations from endorsing political candidates.
"I am going to work very hard to repeal that language and protect free speech for all Americans," Trump told the GOP audience.
Describing himself as "the law-and-order candidate," Trump said things will change when he is sworn in as president Jan. 20. "[S]afety will be restored" and "Americans will finally wake up in a country where the laws of the United States are enforced," he said.
In contrast to Clinton, he promised "to build a great border wall to stop illegal immigration, to stop the gangs and the violence, and to stop the drugs from pouring into our communities."
Trump also called for suspension of immigration "from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism until such time as proven vetting mechanisms have been put in place."
The Republican nominee also promised:
• To replace the late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with "a person of similar views, principles and judicial philosophies."
• To repeal "Obamacare," the 2010 health care law.
• To rebuild the military.
• To lift limitations on energy production.
• The enforcement of all trade violations by other countries.
Another Thursday speaker, PayPal cofounder and Trump supporter Peter Thiel, told delegates, "I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all I am proud to be an American."
Thiel also seemed to minimize the controversy over the Obama administration's May directive requiring schools to permit transgender students to use the restrooms and locker rooms of their gender identity instead of their biological sex. He said, "Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?"
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.