Editor’s note: This story is part of Deseret Magazine’s January/February double issue addressing political polarization.

“What was the moment that made you want to bridge the divide?” 

The first time I remember being asked that question was in a meeting of Braver Angels leadership, several years ago. Braver Angels, for which I serve as national ambassador, is America’s largest grassroots organization dedicated to the depolarization of American politics and civil society. In searching my memories for a moment that might explain my passion, I rewound past my campaign for California’s 43rd Congressional District, past my early forays into political activism, past arguments in college and high school, past Barack Obama versus the tea party movement, George Bush and 9/11, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

Finally, my mind fell upon a memory that it had not touched for many years. A memory of myself as a little boy listening to my mother and father screaming at each other in our living room, as they too often did. A memory of myself rushing to stand in the space between them, covering my ears with my hands and pleading with them to stop screaming at each other.

Bridge over troubled water
Compromise for the sake of unity

My parents’ differences did not arise out of politics per se. But being from not just different races but from different classes, different regions, different generations and different ways of seeing the world, their divisions clashed in ways that proved irreconcilable. Like many children who find themselves the victims of divorce, my brother and I found ourselves locked in a cold war between Mom and Dad for years. But for all of their differences with each other, their love for their children was beyond question. 

This led me to wonder to myself, how could two people with so much love inside of them fail to love each other? The villain, I decided, was in some deep misunderstanding. The antidote was in understanding. I carried this attitude with me throughout life right into politics. So in an age where Democrats and Republicans view each other as the enemy, I cannot help but see them as merely Mom and Dad.

If America is to move to the next chapter of her story we must think of America as a family — a family that through love and goodwill can hold together.

I shared that perspective on the campaign trail in 2014 as California’s youngest active nominee for Congress and running against incumbent Rep. Maxine Waters. Whether I was speaking to a predominantly white tea party club in South Bay, L.A. County, or to a predominantly Black and Democratic leaning church in South Central Los Angeles, the question of my qualifications for representing such a complex community would arise. My answer to all audiences began with my life experience.

“I come from an interesting family background,” I would say. “My mother is a liberal Black Democrat from inner-city Los Angeles, and my father is a conservative white Republican from Tennessee. I grew up explaining my mother to my father and my father to my mother and that’s why I think I can represent all of you.”

I didn’t win that race, but I have spent most of my 37 years in and around politics with a singular, overarching goal: normalizing understanding and rebuilding trust between combatants across the partisan divide. I am not the only one. Though we live in an age defined by deepening distrust exacerbated by new technologies, bad incentives and genuine challenges domestically and around the globe, a modest movement of Americans representing organizations, platforms and communities from every corner of the country are trying to reset the table. 

Many of us in that movement believe if we can understand the humanity underlying our differences we can remember how to love each other. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taught that agape love (God’s love) was a spiritual power that could affect social transformation. It was this spirit that powered the mainstream of the civil rights movement. 

But love is an axiomatic commitment. If America is to move to the next chapter of her story, we must think of America as a family — a family that through love and goodwill can hold together.

We are divided by politics, race, class, generation and many things that cast a dark shadow upon the future of the American experiment. Each is its own part of the riddle. But the answer to this deep societal cancer of polarization must begin with a certain remembrance — that we as Americans are like a family. We didn’t choose each other. But we can choose to love each other. For no family can stand if it does not remember to love. 

John Wood Jr. is a national leader for Braver Angels and a former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County.

This story appears in the January/February 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.