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Poll Asks: What Does It Take to Be 'Truly American' ?

The poll measured how speaking English, sharing customs, being born on U.S. soil and being a Christian are viewed as part of American identity.
Image: A woman wears a U.S. flag scarf during the Women's March on Washington, following the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump, in Washington, DC, Jan. 21, 2017.
A woman wears a U.S. flag scarf during the Women's March on Washington, following the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump, in Washington, DC, Jan. 21, 2017.Brian Snyder / Reuters

President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration has again brought one of the nation’s defining questions to the forefront of public debate: What does it mean to be truly American?

A new report by the Pew Research Center explored the factors that determine national identity. The poll found that the U.S. public puts a high premium on speaking English and sharing American customs, but a smaller share believe that a person must be born on U.S. soil to be “truly American.” The country is also divided – largely along partisan and religious lines – over whether being a Christian is important to American identity.

Of the four major factors Pew tested, language proved to be the most important. More than nine-in-ten American respondents agreed English proficiency is a very or somewhat important factor in being American, with 70 percent saying it is “very important.”

Republicans place particular importance on English proficiency. The survey found that 83 percent of Republicans believe speaking English is very important to being “truly American,” compared to 61 percent of Democrats and 67 percent of independents.

Sharing customs and traditions is also a key factor in national identity for most Americans, as 84 percent of respondents believe that following American customs and traditions is very or somewhat important, compared to 15 percent of respondents who believe it is not very or not at all important.

Americans are more divided on whether being born on U.S. soil is a prerequisite for American identity, A slim majority – 55 percent – say that birthplace should be a factor in being “truly American,” but only about a third – 32 percent – say it is “very important.”

The 14th amendment to the Constitution dictates that all children born in the United States are American citizens, although lawmakers perennially push to clarify or change the law. (Most Constitutional scholars say that a Constitutional amendment would be necessary to alter the longstanding policy.)

In 2015, roughly a quarter of the United States population was made up of immigrants or the children of immigrants.

Notably, the Pew poll also shows a major partisan split in how each political party views birthright citizenship. Only 35 percent of Republicans, 32 percent of Democrats, and 29 percent of independents call being born in the U.S. “very important” to American identity.

More partisan differences occur on questions of faith, however. Forty three percent of Republicans say that being Christian is very important to being American, compared to 29 percent of Democrats and 26 percent of independents.

Among faith groups, evangelical Protestants make up the only denomination in which a majority, at 57%, believes that being a Christian is important to national identity.