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Attendees wave flags before then-Vice President Mike Pence spoke at First Baptist Church Dallas in June 2020.
Attendees wave flags as music is played before then-Vice President Mike Pence made comments at First Baptist Church Dallas in Dallas, Sunday, June 28, 2020.
Tony Gutierrez, Associated Press

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What makes someone ‘truly American?’ Here’s how politics affects your answer

A new survey explores the partisan gap in beliefs about what traits make you ‘truly American’

Democrats and Republicans have different ideas about how “true Americans” should relate to religion, according to the 2021 American Values Survey, released Monday by Public Religion Research Institute.

Nearly 8 in 10 members of the GOP (78%) said believing in God is “very” or “somewhat” important to being “truly American,” the survey showed. Less than half of Democrats (45%) made the same claim.

Republicans were also much more likely to believe that true Americans are Christian. Just under two-thirds of the GOP (63%) held this opinion, compared to 35% of Democrats.

Religion isn’t the only factor that members of the two parties rate differently, researchers noted. Republicans and Democrats also disagree on whether true Americans are born in America, speak English or love the country’s economic system.

“Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats to think (the) belief that capitalism is the best economic system ... (is) important to being truly American,” researchers reported.

These findings are notable not just because of what they reveal about the partisan divide, but also because they complicate some commonly held assumptions about the Democratic Party, said William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at Brookings, during a virtual event accompanying the survey’s release.

“We tend to think of Democrats as the secular party, but we find that fully 45% of Democrats say that belief in God is essential to being truly American. ... We think of the Democratic Party as the religiously pluralistic party, but more than one-third of Democrats say you can’t be truly American unless you’re a Christian,” he said.

Natalie Jackson, director of research for Public Religion Research Institute, agreed that the Democratic Party is internally diverse. Black Protestant Democrats often have more in common with conservatives than with their fellow party members, she noted.

Another potentially surprising takeaway from the survey is that Democrats and Republicans rate several traits the same way.

For example, almost all members of each party said believing in individual freedoms, like freedom of speech, and accepting people of diverse racial and religious backgrounds is a “very” or “somewhat” important part of being truly American. Most Republicans and Democrats also agreed that being of Western European heritage doesn’t matter.

“It’s rather remarkable that there seems to be a great deal of agreement among Americans of all partisan stripes,” said Nazita Lajevardi, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University, during the virtual event.

She was particularly struck by the similar share of Republicans (94%) and Democrats (96%) who said true Americans believe every citizen has a right to vote. Current debates over election rules would lead you to think that wasn’t the case, Lajevardi noted.

“Much of our national discourse (around voting) has been divided along partisan lines,” she said.

The 2021 American Values Survey was conducted online from Sept. 15-29 among 2,508 U.S. adults. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 2.1 percentage points.

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