The tide of people moving across the world, be they immigrants or refugees, has sparked concern in Australia, Europe and the United States. In particular, the ethnic, linguistic and cultural background of migrants has triggered intense debates over the benefits and the costs of growing diversity and the risk of open borders to national identity. Unease over the cultural, economic and security ramifications of immigration helped to fuel the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, encourage the idea of a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and broaden support for right-wing populist parties in France, Germany and the Netherlands.
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, a Pew Research Center survey finds that people generally place a relatively low premium on a person’s birthplace. Only 13% of Australians, 21% of Canadians, 32% of Americans and a median of 33% of Europeans believe that it is very important for a person to be born in their country in order to be considered a true national.
There are some exceptions – Hungary (52%), Greece (50%) and Japan (50%) – where about half the public considers birthplace to be very important. But in other nations – Germany (13%), Australia (13%) and Sweden (8%) – very few people make a strong connection between the locale of one’s birth and national identity.
These are the findings from a cross-national poll by Pew Research Center, conducted in 14 countries among 14,514 respondents from April 4 to May 29, 2016.
While many in the countries surveyed are open to those born elsewhere being part of “the nation,” acceptance comes with certain requisites. Majorities in every country surveyed say it is very important to speak the dominant language to be considered truly a national of that land. This includes a median of 77% in Europe and majorities in Japan (70%), the U.S. (70%), Australia (69%) and Canada (59%).
In addition, sharing national customs and traditions is very important to many people’s sense of “who is us.” Just over half the public in Canada (54%) and roughly half the public across Australia (50%) and Europe (a median of 48%) links adoption of local culture to national identity. Somewhat fewer than half of Americans (45%) and Japanese (43%) make that connection.
The survey also asked about the link between religious affiliation and national identity. About a third (32%) of people in the U.S. believe it is very important to be Christian to be considered truly American. This contrasts with 54% of Greeks who say this, but only 7% of Swedes.
Young, old see national identity differently
Across the countries surveyed, there are significant differences in how the youngest and oldest generations view national identity. In the U.S., people ages 50 and older (40%) are more likely than those ages 18 to 34 (21%) to say it is very important that a person be born in the country to be considered truly American. In Japan, the generational divide is even more pronounced: Older Japanese are more likely than their younger counterparts to link national identity to birthplace by a 59% to 29% margin. Generational differences, though generally more modest, are also evident in Australia and Canada (15 percentage points each), and across most European countries surveyed.
The generations differ even more sharply over the importance of national customs and traditions. In the U.S., people ages 50 and older (55%) are far more likely than those ages 18 to 34 (28%) to say sharing such cultural elements is very important to being truly American. There is a similar 20-percentage-point generation gap in Canada, Australia and Japan. In Europe, a median of 37% of 18- to 34-year-olds believe this aspect of national identity is very important, compared with 56% of those ages 50 and older.
Partisan views on national identity in the U.S., Australia, Canada, Europe
In many countries, the debate over national identity is a partisan one.
In the U.S., more than eight-in-ten Republicans (83%) say language proficiency is a very important requisite for being truly American. Fewer independents (67%) share that strong belief and even fewer Democrats (61%) agree. Among Republicans, 60% say that for a person to be considered a true American it is very important that he or she share U.S. culture. Only 40% of independents and 38% of Democrats agree that this is very important to being truly American.
A clear partisan split in the U.S. also exists on the importance of being Christian. More than four-in-ten Republicans (43%) say it is a very important part of being an American. Fewer Democrats (29%) and independents (26%) share this view.
Notably, there is not much partisan difference about the link between the land of one’s birth and U.S. national identity. Roughly a third of Republicans (35%) and Democrats (32%) say being born in the U.S. is very important. Slightly fewer independents (29%) hold that view.
Views of what constitutes national identity also divide publics along party lines in some European countries. In the UK, 73% of those who have a favorable opinion of the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) say adhering to British culture is very important to being British. Just 44% of those who have an unfavorable view of UKIP agree. In France, sharing French customs and traditions is tied to national identity for those who have a favorable view of the right-wing, populist National Front (FN) (65% say it is very important). Just 39% of those who hold an unfavorable opinion of the FN strongly link culture to being truly French.
There is a similar 24 percentage-point difference on the importance of Swedish customs and traditions between sympathizers with the right-wing, populist Swedish Democrats and those who see them unfavorably. And in Germany there exists a 22-point gap on the importance of culture between those who favor the Alternative for Germany party and those who don’t.
In Australia, roughly eight-in-ten (79%) supporters of the center-right Liberal Party and about seven-in-ten (68%) backers of the center-left Labor Party say it is very important to speak English to be considered Australian. Only a third of the left-leaning environmentally oriented Greens agree. There is even greater partisan disparity on the importance of customs and tradition. More than six-in-ten Liberal Party followers (63%) believe that adherence to Australian customs and traditions is very important to national identity. Just over four-in-ten Labor Party supporters concur (44%). And even fewer Greens agree (15%).percentage-point difference on the importance of Swedish customs and traditions between sympathizers with the right-wing, populist Swedish Democrats and those who see them unfavorably. And in Germany there exists a 22-point gap on the importance of culture between those who favor the Alternative for Germany party and those who don’t.
In Canada, while majorities across all major parties say it is very important to speak either French or English, this sentiment is held most strongly by those supporting the center-right Conservative Party of Canada (68%), followed by those backing the center-left Liberal Party (59%) and those supporting the social-democratic New Democratic Party (53%). More than six-in-ten Conservatives (63%) believe that a person must share Canadian customs and traditions to be truly Canadian. Fully 57% of Liberals agree, but only 46% of New Democrats share this view. Relatively few Canadians aligned with any of these major parties think it is very important to national identity to be Christian or to be born in Canada.
In U.S., many say speaking English is important for being ‘truly American’
In the United States, about half of all immigrants were proficient in English as of 2014. Most Americans consider such language facility to be an important attribute of U.S. nationality. Fully 70% of the public says that to be truly American it is very important to be able to speak English, and an additional 22% believe proficiency is somewhat important. Just 8% assert that English is not very or not at all important.
U.S. generations differ on whether English proficiency matters to being an American. Among people ages 50 and older, 81% say such language ability is very important. Only 58% of those ages 18 to 34 place an equal premium on speaking English.
Americans with a high school education or less (79%) are more likely than those who have graduated college (59%) to voice the view that speaking English is very important to being a true American. Similarly, white evangelical Protestants (84%) are much more likely than people who are religiously unaffiliated (51%) to strongly hold such views.
There are virtually no racial or ethnic differences on the importance of speaking English to be truly American: Roughly seven-in-ten whites (71%), blacks (71%) and Hispanics (70%) agree it is very important.
Among Americans, the prevailing view is that culture plays a role in defining national identity. More than four-in-ten (45%) believe that for a person to be considered truly American, it is very important that he or she share American customs and traditions. Another 39% say such identification with U.S. culture is at least somewhat important. Only 15% voice the view that this embrace of cultural Americanism is not very or not at all important.
Notably, there is a significant generation gap when it comes to the importance of customs and traditions. A majority of people ages 50 and older say it is very important to have an affinity for American culture to be considered truly American. Just 28% of people ages 18 to 34 agree.
Education matters in a person’s view of cultural identity. More than half (54%) of people with a high school education or less believe that to be truly American it is very important that one share U.S. customs and traditions. Just 33% of those with a college degree or more share this view.
Similarly, Catholics (58%), white evangelical Protestants (54%) and white mainline Protestants (46%) are more likely than those who are unaffiliated (28%) to believe that adherence to U.S. culture is very important to being an American.
Born in the USA
In 2015, 13.9% of the U.S. population was foreign born. This proportion has increased from 4.7% in 1970. An additional 11.9% of those living in the U.S. are second-generation immigrants. So roughly a quarter of the public are immigrants or the sons and daughters of immigrants.
Against this backdrop, only about a third (32%) of people in the U.S. believe that to be truly American it is very important to have been born in the United States. Nearly a quarter (23%) say it is somewhat important, while a fifth (21%) think it is not important at all.
Nearly half (47%) of people in the U.S. with a high school education or less say that to be American one must be born in the country. Only 14% of the public with a college degree or more shares that opinion.
Roughly half of non-Hispanic blacks (49%), compared with 38% of Hispanics and 28% of whites, believe it is very important to be born in the U.S. to be truly American.
Faith: Few strong links to national identity
In all countries except Japan, the survey asked respondents whether being Christian or Catholic (reflecting religious traditions in the countries polled) was important to national identity. Across the 13 countries where the question was asked, a median of just 15% say it is very important to be Christian in order to be a true national. Only in Greece do more than half (54%) hold this view, while in Sweden fewer than one-in-ten (7%) make a strong connection between nationality and Christianity.
Religion and the sense of being ‘truly American’
In 2014, Christians accounted for 70.6% of the U.S. population. Non-Christians and those unaffiliated with any religion totaled 28.7%.
About a third (32%) of Americans say it is very important for a person to be a Christian in order to be considered truly American. Roughly three-in-ten (31%) contend that one’s religion is not at all important.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the link between religion and nationality is of greatest consequence to those for whom religion plays a very important role in daily life. Among this group, 51% say it is very important to be Christian in order to be truly American. For those respondents who say religion for them is only somewhat important, not too important or not important at all, just 11% say Christian identity is very important to being American.
There is also a denominational divide on the relationship between Christianity and nationality. A majority (57%) of white evangelical Protestants say it is very important to be Christian to be a true American. Just 29% of white mainline Protestants and 27% of Catholics agree. Only 9% of people who are unaffiliated with an organized religion say it is very important for a person to be Christian in order to be truly American.
Generations are divided on this question, with those 50 and older placing far greater importance on being a Christian (44% say it is very important) than Americans under 35 (18%).
Men and women slightly differ on religion’s importance in American identity. More than a third (36%) of women say it is very important for a person to be a Christian; roughly a quarter (27%) of men concur.
Views on Christianity and nationality also differ along educational lines. People with a high school education or less (44%) are more than twice as likely as people with at least a college degree (19%) to voice the view that it is very important that one is Christian in order to be American.
So what does it take to be ‘truly American’?
Roughly nine-in-ten in the U.S. (92%) voice the view that to be truly American it is very or somewhat important that a person speak English, with 70% saying it is very important.
More than eight-in-ten think a person’s American-ness depends on whether she or he shares U.S. customs and traditions. In addition, a majority of the public believes that to be truly American a person has to be born in the United States. And the public is divided over whether one has to be Christian in order to be considered American, with roughly a third saying it is very important and another third saying it is not at all important.