In light of Trump’s travel ban, do you have to be Christian to be a true American?
© Getty Images

The White House claims that an executive order temporarily closing U.S. borders to refugees and others from seven predominantly Muslim countries is about national security, not religion. Critics claim the order amounts to a ban on Muslims. Debate over the ban raises a broader question: whether religion should matter when it comes to seeking asylum or citizenship in the United States, and what it means to be a “true” American.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2016 found that about a third (32 percent) of Americans believe it is very important for a person to be Christian in order to be considered truly American. Nearly the same proportion (31 percent) contends that one’s religion is not at all important.


The link between religion and nationality is of greatest consequence to those Americans for whom religion plays a very important role in their life. Among this group, 51 percent 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 percent say a Christian identity is very important to being an American.


There is also a denominational divide between Americans over their views of the relationship between Christianity and nationality. A majority (57 percent) of white evangelical Protestants say it is very important to be Christian in order to be a true American. Only 29 percent of white mainline Protestants and 27 percent of Catholics agree. And just 9 percent 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.

As the current debate over the refugee order suggests, a clear partisan split in the U.S. exists on the importance of being Christian. More than four in 10 Republicans (43 percent) say it is a very important part of being an American. Fewer Democrats (29 percent) and independents (26 percent) share this view.

There is also a fairly large generation gap over the link between religious faith and national identity. People ages 50 and older place far greater importance on being a Christian (4 percent say it is very important) than Americans under 35 (18 percent).

Religion and a sense of “who is us” are far more intertwined in the American consciousness than in that of most other people. The same Pew Research Center survey also asked people in Canada, Australia and 10 European countries about the link between national identity and being Christian. A median of just 15 percent in Europe and a similar number in Canada (15 percent) and Australia (13 percent) say it is very important to be Christian in order to be a true national. Only in Greece do more than half (54 percent) of the public state that being Christian is very important to national identity.

Besides religion, what do Americans see as vital to their national identity? Seven in 10 say it is very important that people speak English to be “truly” American. And more than four in 10 (45 percent) say being a real American requires sharing in the country’s traditions and culture.

What may be surprising, given the long-running debate in the United States over immigration, is that only about a third of Americans (32 percent) say that to be truly American it is very important to have been born in the United States. Nearly a quarter (23 percent) says it is somewhat important, while around a fifth (21 percent) think it is not important at all.

Roughly half of non-Hispanic blacks (49 percent), compared with 38 percent of Hispanics and 28 percent of whites, believe it is very important to be born in the U.S. to be truly American. And nearly half (47 percent) 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 percent of the public with a college degree or more shares that opinion.

People ages 50 and older (40 percent) are more likely than those ages 18 to 34 (21 percent) to make a strong link between where a person is born and their national identity.

Despite the current partisan debate over President TrumpDonald John TrumpHannity urges Trump not to fire 'anybody' after Rosenstein report Ben Carson appears to tie allegation against Kavanaugh to socialist plot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate MORE’s executive order, 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 percent) and Democrats (32 percent) say being born in the U.S. is very important. Slightly fewer independents (29 percent) hold that view.

Notably, Hungarians (52 percent), Greeks (50 percent), Japanese (50 percent), Italians (42 percent) and Poles (42 percent) are all much more likely than Americans to believe that a person has to be born in their country to be truly one of them.

So, while the intent behind the president’s executive order may be debated, religion for most in the United States is not a litmus test for becoming a true American; nor is being born in the United States. If immigrants, including refugees, learn English and adopt U.S. customs and traditions, most Americans will accept them as truly “one of us.”


Bruce Stokes is the director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.