One-Third Of U.S. Residents Say You Must Be Christian To Be ‘Truly American’

I was born in the United States, as were my parents and three-quarters of my grandparents. I was educated at public schools, I pay taxes and I vote. I’ve spent most of my adult life working as a journalist and now for an organization that advocates for religious freedom, so you could say I live and breathe the First Amendment.

But according to a third of my fellow citizens, I’m not “truly American” because I’m not a Christian.

That’s according to the results of a just-released “What It Takes to Be Truly ‘One of Us’” survey by the Pew Research Center, which asked 14,500 people in 14 countries questions about how they view national identity.

In the United States, 32 percent of respondents said it was “very important” to be a Christian in order to be “truly American.” Another 19 percent said Christianity is somewhat important, which means just over half of the respondents tied religion to national identity in a country where our First Amendment explicitly states there shall be no established religion.

That surprised me, especially in light of a Pew study released a couple years ago that found about a third of Americans identified as being non-religious or practicing a faith other than Christianity.

It’s also alarming when you hear the study results at the same time your president advocates for chipping away at church-state separation by repealing the Johnson Amendment and prioritizing admission for Christian refugees over Muslims, and while he’s appointing advisors who have troubling views of religious freedom.

Catherine Rampell, a columnist for The Washington Post, recently opined that America is seeing religion infiltrate public policies – and the threat is coming from Christian conservatives, not Muslims pushing Sharia law.

“The religiously motivated laws creeping into public policymaking aren’t based on the Koran, and they aren’t coming from mythical hard-line Islamists in, say, Dearborn, Mich.,” Rampell wrote. “They’re coming from the White House, which wants to make it easier for hard-line Christians to impose their beliefs and practices on the rest of us.”

Religion shouldn't be a prerequisite to being an American.

The United States was somewhat of an outlier in the Pew study in terms of associating Christianity with nationality. Only two countries had larger numbers of people who thought being a Christian was very important to national identity: Greece, at 54 percent, and Poland, 34 percent. The median response across all countries in the survey was 15 percent, which is about how many of our neighbors to the north thought being Christian was key to being Canadian.

Equally surprising to me was the relatively few people who thought being born in the United States was very important to being American: 32 percent. Given the harsh rhetoric about immigrants during the last election cycle, I would’ve expected a much larger response.

It sounds like those numbers might have surprised Pew’s researchers as well: “Debates over what it means to be a ‘true’ American, Australian, German or other nationality have often highlighted the importance of a person being born in a particular country. But contrary to such rhetoric, (the) survey finds that people generally place a relatively low premium on a person’s birthplace.”

The U.S. was right in the middle of the pack – six countries had more people say birthplace was very important, while seven countries had the same number or fewer people responding that way.

That, along with the response of Americans supporting the immigrants and refugees impacted by President Donald Trump’s ban on Muslims, gives me a lot of hope. (Americans United currently is involved in two of the federal lawsuits challenging Trump’s executive order, including one of the suits that last night resulted in a federal appeals court upholding the freeze on the ban. You can find a lot of information about our involvement in these cases here.)

It’s interesting to speculate what people would have answered if Pew had just asked what they associate with being an American, rather than asking specific questions about Christianity and such.

Putting aside the question of birthplace, I’d say having an appreciation for freedom and democracy are part of what makes someone American. Learning about, tolerating – even celebrating – our differences while proudly sharing our own beliefs, traditions and quirks is a vital aspect of our culture.

And having a taste for apple pie is a must.