Is there anything more American than this truck? No. (Steve Jurvetson/Flickr)

What does it take to be truly American? Well, the straightforward answer is that to be an American citizen you have to either be born here, or to move here and apply for citizenship.

But that answer is boring and unsatisfactory. It doesn't get at any of the intangibles we've long associated with red-blooded Americanness, like Mom and apple pie and muscle cars and jorts.

Sadly, there were no questions about jean shorts in the latest survey from the Public Religion Research Institute. But the pollsters did ask a battery of questions dealing with what makes an American. Specifically, they asked people how important the following four qualities are to be "truly American:" speaking English, believing in God, being born in the U.S., and being a Christian. Here's what people said:


An overwhelming majority -- 89 percent -- said speaking English was important. This makes a certain amount of sense, as it's one of the requirements for becoming a naturalized citizen. And most American citizens do, in fact, have some degree of English language proficiency. The 2013 American Community Survey (ACS) found that only 4.6 percent of U.S. households do not have anyone over the age of 14 who speaks English at least "very well." About 14 percent of citizens aged 18 and over speak a language other than English at home, according to the ACS, but more than two-thirds of them speak English "very well."

Sixty-nine percent of respondents also said belief in God was important for being truly American. Naturalized citizens are required to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States that includes the phrase "so help me God;" but people objecting to that language are allowed to swear a modified version of the oath if they wish. As of May 2014 12 percent of Americans said they did not believe in God or a universal spirit, according to Gallup.

Fifty-eight percent of Americans say it's important to be born here in order to be truly American, according to the Public Religion poll. As of 2010, 12.9 percent of the American population wasn't born here, according to the Brookings Institution.

Finally, 53 percent of PRRI respondents said being Christian was important for being truly American. But the 28.7 percent of Americans who do not belong to the Christian faith would probably disagree with that assessment. Not to mention the people who wrote "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," or that bit about how "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

PRRI notes that there are substantial generational divides on these questions -- in all cases, 18 to 29-year-olds are less likely than senior citizens to say these qualities are important for being truly American. And there are big political divides when it comes to religion: 81 percent of Republicans say that believing in God is important for being American, compared to 63 percent of Democrats.

What's more, 69 percent of Republicans go further and say that being Christian is important for being truly American, compared to only 46 percent of Democrats.