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Common Ground On What It Means To Be American?
Common ground on who's American
Amid a heated immigration debate, a survey finds behavior is more important than background.
By Daniel B. Wood
The Christian Science Monitor, April 25, 2006
LOS ANGELES – "What does it mean to be an American?"
"Opportunity," says Rosita Romero, a second-generation émigré from El Salvador, lunching at Twain's Restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles. [ How can you be a second-generation emigre? --y.]
"E Pluribus Hassle - out of many people, one bigger and bigger problem," says Brent Uggam, a truck driver from Kansas City, Mo.
When a Purdue University professor asked that question of 1,500 adult US citizens nationwide, he was surprised by the response. Despite heated debate over illegal immigration, there is more uniting the country on the issue of national identity than dividing it, says Jeremy Straughn, the sociology professor who oversaw the telephone survey. "The reason there is a perception that the country is so divided has more to do with the structure of our political system and the way the two-party system works than in the underlying core beliefs we found," he says. "Most qualities considered typically American tend to be about behavior, things you can change."
Besides citizenship (94%), more than 90% 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% thought that serving in the military is important, while 76% said that having an education and training also matters. [The article doesn't get this across well, but the question pertained to whether these qualities are strongly associated with being "truly American," not whether or not they are required to warrant that label. --y.]
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 truly American by 71% and 30%, respectively. One exception is religion, Straughn says. When asked if Christian faith makes someone truly American, 54% agreed (39% did so strongly), but 32% 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." 86% 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.
The survey also found deep differences over what makes someone a patriotic citizen in a time of war. "There are certainly different philosophies about the meaning of patriotism and the ways people interpret the duties of citizens in a time of war, and these perspectives can also change over time," Straughn says. "The rift in public opinion about war in Iraq goes deeper than partisan loyalties alone and may, in turn, reflect differences in how party supporters interpret the rights and duties of citizens in a time of war. As compared with Democratic supporters, those leaning toward the Republicans adhere to unconditional patriotism, with 88% agreeing that 'When our leaders take the country to war, it is our duty as citizens to support their decision.'" Only 46% of Democratic supporters agree with that statement, while 54% strongly disagree. In contrast, 93% of respondents leaning toward the Democrats embrace a philosophy of critical patriotism, which sees criticizing the government as a civic duty, even in wartime.
But support for the war in Iraq has eroded among unconditional patriots due to information that came to light only after the initial invasion, Straughn says. 3 out of 5 of those interviewed in Straughn's survey agree that "Based on what we knew at the time, invading Iraq in 2003 was the right thing to do." But almost a quarter of those who agreed at the time say they now disagree with the invasion based on what is publicly known today.
Straughn, whose research is supported by the College of Liberal Arts and the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, continues to analyze the survey responses. The survey's margin of error was 2 percentage points, and all participants were U.S. citizens older than 18. The sampling procedure used random digit dialing, which gives all households with a phone line an approximately equal probability of being selected.