By Tom Krattenmaker
Featured often in USA Today, Religion News Service
If you’re worried about the extreme polarization in America, the case of Kevin Nicholson and his parents might be your new Exhibit A.
Politics junkies know Nicholson as a rising-star GOP Senate candidate in the fiercely contested state of Wisconsin. Analysts call him a dream candidate: youthful, photogenic, an ex-Marine and, as seems to be required of Republicans, outwardly religious.
But as Nicholson and his story gather more attention in the run-up to the party primary this summer, some quirks have emerged. It turns out he used to be a true-blue Democrat, so much so that he spoke at the 2000 Democratic National Convention. And there’s a worrisome family twist that speaks volumes about where we are heading in this country:
Nicholson is estranged from his mother and father — he says they have not spoken for over a year — over what the son describes as irreconcilable differences in their political worldviews. His brother as well as his parents have donated the maximum allowable amounts to Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s campaign. She’s the Democrat Nicholson will run against if he wins the primary.
“My parents have a different worldview than I do, and it is not surprising that they would support a candidate like Tammy Baldwin who shares their perspective,” Nicholson explains. “I’m a conservative today not because I was born one, but because of the experience I earned as a Marine in combat, my experience as a husband and father, my choice to be a Christian, the schools I chose to attend and the decision to pursue the career that I have.”
We can only guess what explanation the parents have for the separation from their son. Other than the statement they made through their donations to Baldwin, these Nicholsons are not talking. The parents could be the insufferable and intolerant ones, for all we know. But it would be entirely understandable if they found Nicholson’s framing of himself and his story a bit too much. Ditto for many of us watching this family drama.
When it comes to the intense experiences that drove Nicholson’s political metamorphosis — military combat, becoming a husband and father, converting to Christianity — what is there to do but accept his account as valid?
Valid for him, that is. Despite the impression a listener might get from Nicholson, military service, parenthood and religion do not lead exclusively to one becoming a conservative Republican.
Public life is full of veterans who are Democrats, too. Look no further than Conor Lamb, the Marine veteran — and Democrat — who recently won a special congressional election in Pennsylvania.
Nor is there any validity to the oft-heard insinuation that parenthood invariably makes people more conservative. Sure, it can have that effect on some people. It can have the opposite effect, too, awakening people to injustices in education and health systems, for example, that make it hard to give kids a decent, healthy upbringing.
Let’s not fall, either, for the frequently made claim that to be Christian is to be politically conservative. I am surrounded every day by divinity students and aspiring ministers who are sincere and solid in their faith and nowhere near the conservative end of the political spectrum.
But what’s most revealing — and problematic — about Nicholson’s presentation of himself is the way he imbues his differences with his parents with ultimate meaning. He could have chosen to downplay the situation and refer to their having different party preferences and policy positions. He could be emphasizing that he respects and loves them. (And they could say the same about him.)
But no. Nicholson bets the house and goes with “worldview,” suggesting their differences are deep, fundamental, all-encompassing. No room there for conversation and accommodation. It’s the same absolutism that led him this month to question the “cognitive thought process” of veterans who vote for Democrats.
So it goes with our all-in, polarizing approach to politics these days, and with our relationships — our non-relationships, more accurately — with those on the other side of the argument.
The two halves of the body politic are pushing harder and harder against one another, moving us deeper into a civil war-type conflict. Not the military type (although there has been violence) but the hate-them-and-beat-them-at-all-costs variety. This is not a healthy or sustainable paradigm in a democratic system and diverse society where we must continue living with one another after each election.
Elections matter. Politics matter. But so do our relationships. So do our families.
For the good of our country, we need to stay in the conversation with our political opposites — and, indeed, stay in the family — lest we find our “civil war” taking on an increasingly literal meaning. Lest we allow this to go down as the era in which America flunked the test of democracy.
Can someone please get the Nicholsons talking to each other again?