Fewer people in the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany believe that to truly belong in their nation a person must have been born there, be a Christian, share customs and traditions and speak the dominant language.
According to a Pew Research Center report published May 5, all four nations saw an overall decline during the last four years in the number of adults who believe these four categories are “very / somewhat important” for a person to truly belong.
Respondents were presented with the following prompts:
“Some people say that the following things are important for being truly (survey country nationality). Others say they are not important. How important do you think each of the following is?
- To have been born in (survey country)
- To be able to speak (survey country language)
- To be a Christian
- To share (survey country nationality) customs and traditions”
They were asked to select one of the following responses for each: very important, somewhat important, not very important or not at all important.
For birthplace, the U.K. saw the sharpest decline in “very / somewhat important” responses (down 25 points to 31%), followed by the U.S. (down 20 points to 35%), France (down 15 points to 32%) and Germany (down 9 points to 25%).
For language, the U.S. saw a 15-point drop to 77% from 2016 to 2020, followed by the U.K. (down 11 points to 87%), with France and Germany both seeing a four-point decline to 93% and 94%, respectively.
For customs and traditions, 17% fewer U.K. adults believe this is “very / somewhat important” to national belonging (down to 70%), followed closely by the U.S. (down 13 points to 71%), France (down 12 points to 71%) and Germany (down 11 points to 62%).
For Christian affiliation, the U.K. saw a 17-point decline (to 20%), followed by the U.S. (down 16 points to 35%), France (down 9 points to 14%) and Germany (down 7 points to 23%).
“Christians are more likely to say there is a great deal of discrimination against Christians in their society than against non-Christians. They are also more likely to say that being Christian is essential to truly being part of their country’s citizenry,” the report said. “But they are also more likely to say other key factors – including speaking the language and being born in the country – are essential components of national belonging.”
The margin of error for Pew’s survey varied by country: U.S. (plus-or-minus 3.7%), U.K. (plus-or-minus 4.1%), France (plus-or-minus 3.9%) and Germany (plus-or-minus 4.2%).
I reached out to several faith leaders for their reaction and response to the report. Here is what they said:
“The UK has been very specifically impacted by Brexit and this is well reflected in this research. Many would describe the country as divided, with one half becoming more nationalistic and the other more global-inclusive,” said Margot Hodson, director of theology and education for the John Ray Initiative and an Anglican pastor in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom.
“Within this, there is further division between the nations that make up the UK with Scotland, in particular, further divided on devolution from the United Kingdom. Wales (which was not part of the research) also has a strong national identity built around history, customs and the Welsh language,” she said. “How much Brexit crystalized views already present in the UK and how much it amplified them is difficult to determine.”
“Over the last few decades, the Christian faith has gradually shifted from the dominant national religion to being a religion alongside others in the UK, with the majority of the population as non-religious. That is reflected in the research questions about the distinction between national and religious traditions remain complex,” said Hodson, who, together with her husband, Martin, is co-author of several books, including A Christian Guide to Environmental Issues.
“Until the 19th century, German speaking populations used to be scattered over dozens of larger or smaller states. The establishment of a German national state in 1871 was only a partial success,” said Martin Rothkegel, who teaches church history at Theologische Hochschule Elstal, a Baptist theological seminary in Berlin.
“The Reich, with its Protestant majority and Catholic minority, was divided by religion rather than united. The Nazi doctrine of national identity based on biological descent from ‘Germanic ancestors’ became state ideology in 1933: the result was an abyss of war and genocide,” he said. “After 1945, West Germany reclaimed a pro-European identity based on the myth of occidental Christendom. Indeed, the two major Christian denominations, Catholic and the (mostly Lutheran) Protestant territorial churches, contributed a great deal to the recovery of a morally bankrupt population.”
“Today, affiliation with the church is in decline, but the Christian tradition is still a significant point of reference in public debates on ethics and values,” Rothkegel said. “The Pew report suggests that religion is becoming less relevant for national identity discourses. I hope this indicates that German secular and liberal democracy is eventually becoming mature.”
“I’m optimistic about Pew’s new report on the change in public opinion about national identity, but I’m also keenly aware that there is significant work yet to be done,” said Amanda Tyler, executive director of BJC who leads the Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign.
“When 35% of the Americans surveyed – and 48% of American Christians – believe that it is very important to be a Christian in order to be an American, we still have a culture firmly entrenched in Christian nationalism,” she said. “I’m most encouraged that, according to the report, people under the age of 30 are more inclusive in their views about national identity. We should be listening and learning from our younger neighbors as we create a more inclusive society.”