A woman holds out an American flag behind her as she stands at the Oregon State Capitol building Saturday, Nov 7, 2020, in Salem, Oregon. Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

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At a time of intense partisan polarization and less than a year after a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, there’s still a lot Americans largely agree about — including about what it means to be an American.

As seen in a recent survey from the esteemed Public Religion Research Institute, there are commonalities among Americans and, simultaneously, a shared respect for and pride in our multiplicity.

What does it mean to be “truly American”? According to the institute, there’s a near consensus on four values. A whopping 95 percent believe that being an American means backing individual freedoms such as free speech, 93 percent believe that “every citizen should be able to vote in elections,” 92 percent include accepting “people of diverse racial and religious grounds,” and 91 percent think it involves respecting “American political institutions and laws.”

People also largely agree that being “truly American” doesn’t depend on national origin. Only 17 percent hold that having Western European background is important.

In fact, almost two-thirds of Americans believe our country is stronger because  “the United States has a diverse population, with people of many different races, ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds,” the survey found.

And Americans embrace an honest view of our past, not one that airbrushes away negative aspects of our national story.

According to the research institute, “When asked what children should be taught in schools, the vast majority of Americans (84%) agree that ‘We should teach American history that includes both our best achievements and our worst mistakes as a country,’ compared to only 13% who say ‘We should teach American history that focuses on what makes this country exceptional and great.’”

While there’s been a loud upset from some about critical race theory, Maine school board candidates making this case lost and overwhelmingly Americans want to acknowledge the mixed realities of our history.

Of course there remains much that divides us, including on matters of American identity.

The institute found strong partisan differences about whether being “truly American” depends on believing in God, being born in America and being Christian.

How people feel about our economic situation depends a lot on when they were born. Only 30 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 think their “generation is better off financially” than their parents’ generation, compared to 74 percent of those aged 65 and above.

Looking back to the 2020 election, Americans are massively divided regarding its very legitimacy, with 68 percent of Republicans completely or mostly endorsing the Big Lie that the election was stolen from Donald Trump. In contrast, 26 percent of independents and 6 percent of Democrats agree.

Related to distrusting election results is the awful option of supporting political violence. As Public Religion Research Institute found, 18 percent “agree with the statement ‘Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.’ Republicans (30%) are more likely to agree with this than independents (17%) and Democrats (11%). Among Republicans who most trust far-right news sources, agreement increases to 40%.”

If this frightening support for violence continues and is again seen in actions like the Jan. 6 insurrection, our nation is in serious trouble.

But there is also potential for a better future. When asked if they agree if “It is still possible for the U.S. to achieve the ideal of our national motto ‘E Pluribus Unum’,” 75 percent agree. Moreover, this hopefulness is shared across all sorts of demographic lines, with strong majorities from every party, race, age group, religion, party, sex, region and religion.

And the possibility for greater unity does not rest on ignoring distasteful, damaging aspects of our national history. Considering our past in a complex, nuanced way is hard, but it’s not only more honest, but also an approach most Americans favor.

We will always have different policy perspectives. In arguing about them, we should be united in pursuing our shared American creed, preserving and strengthening our democratic republic, and liberty, opportunity and justice for all.


Amy Fried, Opinion columnist

Amy Fried has written about the media and politics, women in politics, Maine and American political culture, and political activism, and works to create change through the Rising Tide Center. A political...