During the course of this decade, the concept of patriotism has been the subject of intense conversation – and disagreement. New nationwide research conducted by the American Culture & Faith Institute reveals that Americans’ ideas about patriotism are greatly influenced by factors such as their religious faith, age, political ideology, and race – but not always in the ways that people might expect.
Six out of every ten Americans (59%) characterize themselves as either “extremely” (23%) or “very” (36%) patriotic. About one out of four adults took the middle ground, claiming to be “somewhat” patriotic (28%), while the rest of the public were either less patriotic or not sure.
Conservatives are far more likely than other people to characterize themselves as extremely patriotic – in fact, about twice as likely to do so than either moderates or liberals.
Conservatives (78%) and Republicans (81%) were more likely than their political counterparts to describe themselves as either “extremely” or “very” patriotic. Far lower on the continuum, but similar to each other, were Moderates (52%) and liberals (51%), with independents (57%) slightly more likely than Democrats (52%) to define themselves as at least “very patriotic.”
People associated with the Christian faith rated themselves higher in terms of personal patriotism (64% extremely or very patriotic) than did those associated with non-Christian faiths (38%) or with no faith (40%). Within the Christian universe, Protestant Christians rated themselves more highly on the patriotism scale than did Catholics.
White adults were more likely than non-white adults to consider themselves to be patriotic. While two-thirds of whites (65%) said they were either extremely or very patriotic, the same designations were embraced by about half of Hispanics (53%) and a minority of blacks (44%).
Most adults sense a decline in patriotism in the U.S. Overall, just one out of every eight adults (13%) claims patriotism is on the rise while half of the nation believes it is waning. (About one-quarter says it is stable, and one-tenth did not know.) Since most Americans think of themselves as highly patriotic, clearly the problem is “them” – those other Americans who don’t get it.
When the political views and commitments of respondents are taken into consideration, the results of these questions assume a somewhat different pallor. For instance, conservatives (62%) are far more likely than either moderates (49%) or liberals (36%) to perceive that Americans are becoming less patriotic.
National Pride and Commitments are Lukewarm
Most American adults have lukewarm or ambiguous views regarding their commitments to their country and its governance.
Slightly less than half “completely” embrace the idea that they “feel proud to be an American.” Another one-third (36%) say that description is “mostly accurate.” Two-thirds of Republicans and conservatives say it is “completely accurate” to describe them as being proud to be American. In contrast, less than half of the people in the other major political subgroups (moderates, liberals, Democrats, and independents) embrace that depiction.
Other groups that rated above the norm on the “American pride” measure were adults 65 or older (64%), born again Christians (56%), and whites (49%). Those who were notably unlikely to claim such pride included Skeptics (28%) and adults under 30 years of age (34%).
A mere 8% said they “always trust the government to do the right thing.” Very few adults, regardless of party affiliation or ideology, maintain such trust in the government’s choices. Liberals were slightly more likely to possess this faith than anyone else (12%), but that amounts to just one out of eight people. The other people group prone to have relatively greater trust (13%) was Millennials. Lagging the field in trust of the government performance was the 65-plus crowd (2%).
Despite that limited trust in government, just three out of ten adults (29%) say are accurately described as wanting the government to stay out of their life. A shockingly small proportion of the populace strongly affirms the idea of keeping the government out of their life, ranging from one-third of Republicans, independents, and conservatives to one-quarter of moderates, liberals, and Democrats. Notably, there was no faith, age, or racial segment for which even four out of ten respondents completely agreed that they want the government to stay out of their life – thus a tacit admission that a majority still believes that government can add some value to their life.
How confusing are the times? According to the survey, they’re so confusing and complex that most Americans are aware of, and willing to admit, that their political views are not “clear and unchanging.” Three-quarters of adults recognize their ambiguity on political matters. None of the six political segments evaluated had a majority claiming that their political views are “clear and unchanging.” Uncertainty and flexibility are common among all of these voter groups. The fact that no age, racial, or religious segment of the population has more than one-third who claim their political views are clear and unchanging is testimony to the fact that regarding political matters these days people are either ill-informed, disinterested, or confused about – or, perhaps, meet all of those conditions.
Although more than seven out of ten adults acknowledge that there is a culture war raging for the hearts, minds, and souls of Americans, relatively few people are sufficiently engaged in that battle to describe themselves as “culture warriors.” Only one out of every eight adults (12%) strongly affirmed their standing as a “culture warrior.” In fact, a larger share of the public (19%) wholeheartedly rejects that self-description, calling it a “completely inaccurate” portrayal.
Liberals (22%) were more than twice as likely as conservatives (10%) and moderates (9%) to describe themselves as culture warriors. Perhaps because of the sharp and omnipresent partisan differences in the U.S. there was a much smaller gap in this perception between Republicans (13%) and Democrats (17%). The people most likely to view themselves as a culture warrior are adults aligned with a non-Christian faith; non-whites; and Millennials. Those who are least likely to claim that label are whites, born again Christians, and people 50-plus.
Meaningful Elements and Symbols of American Life
Patriotism and the American experience are comprised of many components. In assessing some of the more widely recognized elements, the survey discovered that nearly nine out of ten adults (87%) consider freedom of speech to be personally “very meaningful.” Not far behind in perceived value were freedom of religion (very meaningful to 82%), citizenship (81%), and the Constitution (80%).
Lesser proportions of adults, but a large majority nevertheless – roughly two-thirds of the public – identified three other elements as very meaningful to them. Those included the American flag (70%), the national anthem (65%), and the pledge of allegiance (65%).
About six out of ten adults deemed the Bible (60%) and the right to bear arms (57%) to be very meaningful to them.
- Conservatives registered the highest score – i.e., were the most likely to say each item evaluated was “very meaningful” to them – on each of the nine elements tested. The lone exception related to freedom of speech, which liberals were equally passionate about.
- Liberals had a radically different profile from conservatives on the significance of these items. Liberals were 20 points less likely to consider citizenship personally very meaningful and 27 points less likely to assign high value to the right to bear arms. They were even less likely to attach meaning to the American flag (30 points less), the pledge of allegiance (33 points lower), the national anthem (36 points lower), and the Bible (38 points lower). This is reflective of the substantially different worldviews held by conservatives and liberals.
- The differences across party lines were less substantial than those related to ideology. While Republicans were notably more likely to revere the Constitution than were either Democrats or independents, all three segments had a similar level of respect for citizenship, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.
Democrats and independents had similar and significantly lower levels of appreciation for the American flag, the national anthem, the pledge of allegiance, the Bible, and the right to bear arms than did Republicans. The largest gaps related to the national anthem (30-point difference between Republicans and Democrats) and the pledge of allegiance (29-point gap).
Faith inclinations clearly make a profound difference in how people see the country, and in their responses to what is most meaningful to them. The close tie between being born again and assigning great meaning to the signs, symbols, and provisions of American freedom and greatness are strong and undeniable. When compared to three other faith segments – Notional Christians (i.e., not born again but consider themselves to be Christian), adults aligned with a non-Christian faith, and Skeptics – born again adults emerged as the group that was far-and-away most impacted by the nine elements tested in the survey. They ranked highest among the faith segments on all nine of the elements tested. Skeptics were at the bottom of the ranking for seven of the nine elements, more positive than other groups only in relation to the right to bear arms (on which non-Christian faith adherents ranked lowest).
Whites were more likely than non-whites to characterize most of the elements to be personally very meaningful. The major exception, strangely, was the Bible, which blacks were far more likely than anyone else to revere. The freedoms of speech and religion were generally hailed by all three of the major racial/ethnic groups. Blacks were noteworthy for their very low score awarded to how meaningful they find the national anthem and the pledge of allegiance.
The age group that found these items to be least meaningful was Millennials. Among the age groups, they generated the lowest score on six of the nine items. There was little difference for most of the elements evaluated between the 50-to-64 and the 65-plus groups. However, there was a significant difference in points of view between those under 50 and those 50-plus. The latter had higher scores for each of the items studied except one: the right to bear arms! In that case, 59% of the people under 50 said that right was personally very meaningful compared to 53% among those 50 or older.
How Americans Define Patriotism
The idea of being “patriotic” has different meanings to different people, so the survey examined how well each of 15 different descriptions of patriotism conformed to the beliefs of the American people. Perhaps due to their lack of circumspection on this matter, a majority of people felt that 14 of the 15 options they were given can be considered to be an accurate description of what it means to be patriotic.
There were, however, different levels of support for the various descriptions. There were five descriptions that were accepted by three-quarters or more of the public. At the upper end of the acceptance scale were three particular descriptions, each of which was adopted by about nine out of ten adults: that individual rights come with personal responsibilities, that patriotism entails feeling proud to be an American, and believing in and obeying the Constitution. About three out of every four respondents noted that being committed to carrying out one’s individual civic duty and being willing to die to protect our freedoms were also accurate ways of depicting patriotism.
Roughly two out of three adults agreed that each of six elements is part of being patriotic. Those included defending and living by the rules and ways of life described in the Constitution, whether you agree with them or not; refusing to tolerate abuse of the American flag; using non-violent civil disobedience to overcome social injustice; being willing to serve in the military or via some other form of public service if the need arises and the country seeks your help; voting in every election; and believing that America always comes first.
Smaller majorities concurred that three other concepts are part of patriotism. Those ideas were that a patriot is someone who is willing to join the military to defend the nation, if called upon; one who respects those in positions of government authority, regardless of disagreements with them; and believing that America’s enemies are your enemies.
The only idea tested that was embraced by less than half of the respondents was that you should always accept the choices made by the President while retaining the right to lawfully express disagreement. That concept was endorsed as patriotism by 46%.
Given this long list of attributes that constitute patriotism in the mind of most Americans, it is obvious that there is a disparity between how patriotism is defined and how it is embodied by our citizens.
Conservatives and liberals have notably different views about what constitutes patriotism. In fact, conservatives were at least ten percentage points more likely than liberals to consider each of the following to be an accurate description of patriotic activity or thought:
- Believe America comes first – always (+35 points)
- Refuse to tolerate abuse of the American flag (+32 points)
- Always accept the choices made by the President while retaining the right to lawfully express disagreement (+29 points)
- America’s enemies are your enemies (+25 points)
- Defending and living by the rules and ways of life described in the Constitution, whether you agree with them or not (+24 points)
- Willing to join the military to defend the nation, if called upon (+24 points)
- Respect those in positions of government authority, even if you disagree with them (+21 points)
- Willing to serve in the military or via some other form of public service if the need arises and the country seeks your help (+17 points)
- Feel proud to be an American (+17 points)
- Willing to die to protect our freedoms (+15 points)
- Believe in and obey the Constitution (+13 points)
In contrast, there was only one element among the 15 tested for which liberals were at least ten percentage points more likely than conservatives to describe as an accurate depiction of patriotism. That was the willingness to use non-violent civil disobedience to overcome social injustice, showing a 12-point gap between the two segments.
Not surprisingly, born again Christians were the faith segment most likely to embrace the various traditional views about patriotism. More than 90% of them adopted three of the statements: individual rights come with responsibilities (95%), they feel proud to be American (93%), and that believing in and obeying the Constitution is a core element of patriotism (93%). Ninety percent of Notionals embraced the idea that patriotism is about individual rights producing personal responsibilities. Neither the Skeptics nor people associated with non-Christian faiths reached the 90% level of agreement with any of the 15 statements.
On a spiritual continuum, one could argue that the farther one was from the “devout Christian” end of the spectrum, the less likely they were to accept any given statement as indicative of genuine patriotism. Consequently, the mean scores across all 15 statements formed a straight-line that decreased as one moved from strongly Christian to firmly irreligious. The average score for born again adults was 76%; for Notionals, 69%; for people of non-Christian faiths, 63%; for Skeptics, 57%. Among Skeptics, half or less embraced six of the 15 statements; among people associated with a non-Christian faith, half or less adopted three of the statements; among Notional Christians, just one statement was deemed accurate by less than half; and among born again Christians every one of the 15 statements was embraced by a majority – i.e., none of the statements received support from less than half of the segment.
The American Experience
Adults in this country possess a range of perceptions about the experience of being American. The survey identified some of those perspectives. Some of the opinions voiced reshape prior thinking about the national state of mind.
After the vitriol and passion displayed during the most recent national elections, it is surprising that only half of all adults strongly agree that basic freedoms are under attack in the U.S. Another one-third moderately agrees with that claim. Perhaps even more surprising is that less than half of all adults (45%) strongly affirm the idea that the United States is less united now than at any prior time during their lifetime. Again, an additional one-third of the populace has a moderate degree of agreement with that idea. Further, less than half of the public (45%) strongly agrees that our most visible political leaders are doing little to bring the country together.
Notably smaller proportions of the adult public strongly agree with each of the other statements explored. Only one-third strongly agreed that the U.S. does not have a widely-shared vision of our future for people to rally around. Further, not quite one-fourth of the public strongly agrees that they would feel safe wearing a Make America Great Again hat anywhere in the US. However, a large segment of the population maintains some hope for the future. Only one out of every five adults firmly believe that things are so divided these days that it is no longer possible to bring the nation together.
As has been the pattern throughout this research, again a major distinction between the views of conservatives and liberals was evident in relation to these statements. The outcomes were clear:
- Conservatives were more likely than liberals and moderates to believe that basic freedoms are under attack in America these days, and more likely to say they would feel safe wearing a Make America Great Again hat anywhere in the country.
- Conservatives were less likely than both liberals and moderates to believe that our most visible political leaders are doing little to bring the country together; that the US does not have a widely-shared vision of our future for people to rally around; and that things are so divided these days that it is no longer possible to bring the nation together.
The views of moderates were less predictable than those of people at the ends of the ideological spectrum. The study found that moderates were less likely than liberals to indicate strong agreement with each of the six statements. However, moderates were less likely to offer strong agreement than conservatives for two statements, more likely for three statements, and equally likely for the remaining statement. Compared to conservatives, moderates were:
- Less likely to feel safe wearing a Make America Great Again hat and less likely to say that basic freedoms are under attack.
- More likely to say that our most visible political leaders are doing little to bring the country together; that the US does not have a widely-shared vision of our future for people to rally around; and that things are so divided these days that it is no longer possible to bring the nation together.
- Equally likely to say that the United States is less united now than at any prior time during their lifetime.
Faith adherence also affected peoples’ views on these statements.
- The two people groups that typically exhibit the deepest commitment to their faith – born again Christians and the non-Christian adherents – are the most likely to believe basic American freedoms are under attack. Protestants are more likely than Catholics to accept that thesis.
- The two groups that have distanced themselves from Christianity (non-Christian faith adherents and Skeptics) are the most likely to believe that our most visible political leaders are doing little to bring the country together; and also to argue that things are so divided these days that it is no longer possible to bring the nation together.
- Skeptics are the most likely to say that the nation lacks a widely-shared vision of the future for people to rally around. They were also the segment least likely to say they would feel safe wearing a Make America Great Again hat anywhere in the U.S.
- Regardless of peoples’ faith preference, there is general agreement that the United States is less united now than at any prior time during our lifetime.
The results of the research were troubling to George Barna, the Executive Director of the American Culture & Faith Institute. “One of the historical strengths of the nation was that citizens may have had differences of opinion on issues and policies, but they had a shared understanding of what it meant to be American – a common body of ideas and behaviors that facilitated unity,” the veteran researcher commented. “This research, though, shows just the opposite: there are two very different perspectives about the nature of being American. Unless we address the differences that underlie those competing, parallel views we are bound to see the current partisan divide become even more severe.”
Barna also touched on the potential for peoples’ faith to become an avenue toward unity. “The strongest statistical relationship that emerged throughout the research was that between views of patriotism and peoples’ religious beliefs. In many ways, this is a study highlighting the different worldviews that drive peoples’ lives in America. Because one’s worldview is the filter through which we absorb, interpret, and respond to reality, ideas about concepts such as truth, equality, tolerance, respect, and human nature are affected. With a mere 10% of adults presently possessing a biblical worldview, there is an abundant opportunity for other visions of life, spirituality, and humanity to flourish – and to alter our views of things like patriotism.
“Parents have an opportunity to step up and equip their children with a more robust and appropriate view of what it means to be American. Churches and religious leaders also have the potential to bring healing and understanding to the land if they are willing to equip people with a worldview that reunites the country.
“But that will not be an easy road to navigate,” Barna concluded. “Data from this and other recent surveys we have conducted point out that the Bible has limited personal influence on their thinking, that church leaders are loathe to equip people to think biblically about social and political issues, that growing numbers of people are rejecting traditional Christian values and beliefs, and that born again and conservative Christians are among the groups least likely to see themselves as ‘culture warriors.’ Clearly there is a desperate need for strategic leadership that can provide a compelling vision of what America can look like in the future, and to attract people to a viable long-term plan and process to turn that vision into reality.”
Accessing the Full Report
For data tables and additional commentary regarding the research about patriotism, including the views of people according to their political ideology, age, race, and faith, click here.
About the Research
The research described in this report is drawn from FullView™, a monthly nationwide survey with a randomly-selected sample of 1,000 or more adults, age 18 or older, whose demographic profile reflects that of the adult population. The two online studies on which this report is based were conducted by the American Culture & Faith Institute in October and November of 2017, providing a net base of 2,001 respondents.
The American Culture & Faith Institute is a division of United in Purpose, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. The mission of United in Purpose is to educate, motivate and activate conservative Christians to engage in cultural transformation in ways that are consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The organization does not support or promote individual political candidates or parties.
Additional free information about this research is accessible on the American Culture & Faith Institute website, located at www.culturefaith.com. The full report, American Views on Patriotism, can be read or downloaded from the website.
For access to many other studies conducted by ACFI, please visit the company website (www.culturefaith.com). To receive a free copy of the monthly research reports produced by ACFI, visit the website and register for the American Culture Review newsletter.