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Scriptural authority: two words driving the disaffiliation crisis. Methodists who advocate for denominational unity are depicted as God-less liberals, believers who don’t really believe, and woke zombies with no respect for the word of God. Yet, informed by centuries of historical, archaeological, literary criticism, and classical scholarship, countless Christians reject appeals to scriptural authority.

The term “scriptural authority” is simply another way to say the Bible is inerrant. This idea lies at the heart of America’s political polarization and democratic decline. So, how does the intersection of Biblical inerrancy and Christian nationalism undermine democracy and Christianity? First, it’s essential to define our terms.

Biblical inerrancy is the belief that the Bible is without error. The Biblical text must be read and interpreted literally. Many conservative Christians in the United States and worldwide hold to some form of this doctrine and see the Bible as God’s authoritative and infallible word for all aspects of life.

What is Christian nationalism? It is an old idea, an AR-15 held by a man in a tactical vest outside a polling place, mobs carrying the Christian flag, a fiery sermon, a speech on the floor of the US Congress, and more. It is a movement once considered part of the right-wing fringe now normalized in large swathes of American evangelical culture. Christian nationalism is a political ideology trying to change American society by legislating civil and criminal laws inspired by an ahistorical interpretation of America’s founding narrative, a literalist interpretation of scripture, and advocating for an oversized role for religion in political life.  Recent debates, notably at the state level, concerning abortion access illustrate this intersection between faith, scripture, nationalism, and politics. Christian nationalists often claim that America is and must remain a “Christian nation” based on their interpretation of scripture and the country’s history when making public policy and writing new laws.

Biblical inerrancy feeds Christian nationalist ideology because it fosters the same rigid attitude that rejects diversity and pluralism. Biblical inerrancy leads to problematic conclusions – a distorted view of reality, a divisive view of society, and a dangerous view of political authority.  It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of polarization.

Christian nationalists, fueled by their understanding of inerrancy, tend to see themselves as God’s chosen people, and thus called to defend the United States (and their denomination) against God’s enemies. Unfortunately, these enemies often include those they identify as progressives, persons of other faiths, LGBTQ+ people, or anyone else who does not conform to their Biblical, moral, or political agenda.  This creates a hostile and intolerant atmosphere that undermines social cohesion – or, as some define it, the woke versus everyone else.

Biblical inerrancy is one of the primary foundations of Christian nationalism because it justifies a mindset that encourages Christians to reject pluralism and, ultimately, democracy. By holding a corrupted view of reality, a conflict-driven perspective on society, and an unhealthy vision of (scriptural and political) authority, Christian nationalists who accept Biblical inerrancy undermine the common good, endanger the nation, and willingly contribute to destroying America’s democratic and denominational fabric.

I reject the cult of Biblical inerrancy and all its accompanying theocratic political baggage. Academically, it cannot be defended. Politically, it inspires fear. The trauma it has created is too significant, and its overall threat to society can no longer be ignored. We will become a smaller denomination when United Methodists stop reading the Bible through the distorted lens of brutality and discrimination to pursue political holiness. So be it. To paraphrase Harry Emerson Fosdick, “The fundamentalists shall not win.” The future is too important. Who among us is willing to tell them no?

–Richard Bryant