Study: Ninety-four Percent Say U.S. Citizenship Defines Being an American

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind.

How would you define an American? According to a new Purdue University study, more than 94 percent would say that having United States citizenship makes someone “truly American.” 

“Most other qualities considered typically American tend to be about behavior, things you can change,” says Dr. Jeremy Straughn, the assistant professor of sociology who conducted the survey on national identity in America.

Issues of culture were more important than race or birth. Besides citizenship, more than 90 percent reported that speaking and writing English well and a willingness to pledge allegiance to the flag are important in defining someone as truly American. Nearly 80 percent thought that serving in the military is important, and 76 percent said that having an education and training also matters. 

The study found that, in general, voluntary behaviors are considered more important than qualities that are beyond an individual’s control, like birth or lifetime residence in the United States or being of European descent. These qualities were considered necessary to be truly American by 71 percent and 30 percent, respectively. One exception is religion, Straughn says. When asked if Christian faith makes someone truly American, 54 percent agreed (39 percent did so strongly), but 32 percent strongly disagreed, reflecting a deep division over the role of religion in defining American culture. 

Straughn interviewed more than 1,500 adult U.S. citizens between August and January. Conducted by telephone through Purdue’s Social Research Institute, the survey included 120 items. 

The survey found that most of the same qualities for being truly American also apply when deciding to grant U.S. citizenship to someone from another country.

“What this means is that Americans will tolerate or even welcome immigrants as long as they show loyalty to this country and behave like the Americans already here,” Straughn says. “Where newcomers were born or how long they’ve lived here is secondary.”

Eighty-six percent feel that immigrants make the United States more open to new ideas and cultures, while about the same proportion believe it is better if different groups adapt and blend into the larger community. 

Although the survey did not ask specifically about illegal immigration, it is clear that Americans are divided over how to deal with those who come here unlawfully, Straughn says. “It is less about race and birth and more about law and order,” says Straughn.

Diverse staff reports



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