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What Does it Mean to Be American?
Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux,
Topics: Immigration

There’s no question: Americans are committed, at least in theory, to principles of religious freedom, religious tolerance, and separation of church and state.  But putting those ideals into practice is a tricky enterprise, especially as more Americans are required to wrestle with the realities of living and working alongside people with a wide range of religious, ethnic and political backgrounds.

A new report, written jointly by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution and based on public opinion research conducted by PRRI, vividly illustrates just how delicate these issues can be.  For example, nearly 9-in-10 (88 percent) Americans agree that America was founded on the idea of religious freedom for everyone, including religious groups that are unpopular.  But Americans are also evenly divided over whether the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life (47 percent agree, 48 percent disagree).  Most report being comfortable with Muslims in a variety of settings, but many others still judge self-identified Christians and Muslims differently when they commit religiously based violence.

“Television news media also plays a powerful role in influencing views towards American Muslims,” explained Daniel Cox, PRRI research director. “Americans who say they most trust Fox News are significantly more likely to hold negative views about Islam and American Muslims.”

Similar tensions influence Americans’ attitudes toward immigrants.  The survey finds solid support for the basic tenets of the DREAM Act: allowing illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to gain legal resident status if they join the military or go to college (57 percent favor, 40 percent oppose).  But nearly half (46 percent) of Americans agree that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. A slim majority (51 percent) disagree.  This ambivalence may foreshadow difficulties in passing comprehensive immigration reform, despite the fact that a majority (53 percent) of Americans believe the growing number of newcomers emigrating from other countries strengthens American society.

The report reveals, in the words of E.J. Dionne, one of the report’s authors, that “this debate now has a strong partisan and ideological dimension, which it has not always had.”  The struggle for inclusion and acceptance of America’s newcomers is uneven and, it appears, increasingly divisive.

What does it mean to be American?  And how difficult will it be to forge an evolving national identity that includes people of varying ideologies and backgrounds as the country grows more and more heterogenous?  Read the report and tell us what you think.