Changing American Identity

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America has ceased to be a majority white Christian nation–from 54 percent in 2008 to 43 percent today.  –Associated  Press

The profoundness of the American experiment is that it aspired to create a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles united by voluntary assent to commonly held political beliefs.  The core political beliefs enshrined in U.S. founding “sacred texts,” like the Declaration of Independence.

America, certainly unlike Europe, did not rely on ethnic kinship, cultural character or a “national type”, for a shared identity.  But recent Associated Press-NORC survey data provide troubling evidence that a shared sense of national identity is unraveling, with two mutually exclusive narratives emerging along political party lines.

At the heart of this divide are opposing reactions to changing demographics and culture.  The two major political parties are reorienting from liberal-versus-conservative alignment to new poles of cultural pluralism.

Responding to the question of what kind of culture is important for American identity, mirror-opposite partisan reactions were heard.  Sixty-six percent of Democrats, compared with only 35 percent of Republicans, said the mixing of cultures and values from around the world was extremely or very important to American identity.  Similarly, 64 percent of Republicans, compared with 32 percent of Democrats, saw a culture grounded in Christian religious beliefs as extremely or very important.

Democrats, only 29 percent of whom are white and Christian, are embracing these changes as central to their vision of an evolving American identity that is strengthened and renewed by diversity. By contrast Republicans, nearly three-quarters of whom identify as white and Christian, see these changes eroding a core white-Christian American identity and perceive themselves to be under siege as the country changes around them.

There have been other times in our history when the fabric of American identity was stretched–the Civil War, heightened levels of immigration at the turn of the 20th century and the cultural upheavals of the 1960s.  But during these eras white Christians were still secure as a demographic and cultural majority.

White Christians are today struggling to face a new reality: the inevitable surrender of table ownership in exchange for an equal seat.  It’s this new, higher-stakes challenge that is fueling the great partisan reorientation we are now witnessing.

From an essay by Robert P. Jones for The New York Times, author of The End of White Christian America and chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute.

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