07/03/2013 11:00 am ET Updated Sep 02, 2013

Being Different and Being Proud to Be American

As Americans prepare to celebrate the nation's 237th birthday this July 4th, the overwhelming majority of Americans report being proud of their national identity and heritage. More than 8 in 10 say they feel very (31 percent) or extremely (51 percent) proud to be American, and nearly two-thirds (64 percent) say God has granted America a special role in human history. American pride cuts across political, racial, religious and generational boundaries that typically divide us. On the question of patriotism, there is a general consensus: We are all proud to be Americans.

And yet, there are notable differences in how strongly Americans feel this pride and evident divides in the likelihood with which Americans plan to engage in patriotic activities. For instance, more than 6 in 10 (63 percent) conservatives say they are extremely proud to be American compared to less than half of liberals (45 percent). Conservatives are also more likely than liberals to display an American flag at their home or on their car (68 percent versus 47 percent).

These differences in patriotic intensity are also found among other Americans as well. Older Americans are much more likely than younger Americans to say they are extremely proud to be American (64 percent versus 39 percent). Similarly, white evangelical Protestants are more emphatic in their feelings of national pride than non-white Christians or the religiously unaffiliated Americans. Nearly 7 in 10 (68 percent) white evangelical Protestants say they are extremely proud to be American, compared to 39 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans. White Americans (66 percent) are much more likely than black (50 percent) and Hispanic Americans (40 percent) to display the American flag.

What is it that makes some Americans so passionate about being American, while others are demonstrably less so? Is there something about being non-religious, black, Hispanic, liberal or young that might make people less inclined to strongly embrace their American identity?

It turns out that all these groups share one trait that is highly predictive of patriotic expression: they are all less likely than others to believe they are typical Americans. For reasons of age, ideology, religion or race, these Americans report greater feelings of cultural distance from the average American. Roughly one-third of young adults (32 percent), and religiously unaffiliated Americans (31 percent) describe themselves as being very different than the typical American. Among Hispanic Americans more than one-third (36 percent) similarly describe themselves as being very different.

When it comes to being proud of your country, feeling that you are much like everyone else turns out to be pretty important. No other single characteristic more strongly predicts expressions of patriotism than the belief that you are a fairly typical -- that your beliefs, background and identity are thoroughly embedded in the American mainstream. In fact, Americans who see themselves as typical are more than twice as likely as those who see themselves as being very different to say they are extremely proud to be American. Even white evangelical Protestants, who often feel assailed by modern culture, still believe their views are part of the mainstream. In contrast, historically marginalized groups, many of whom have faced varying degrees of cultural isolation, generally exhibit positive but more modest patriotic feelings.

Yet America is changing. The cultural and demographic landscape continues to shift, challenging traditional notions of what it means to be a typical American. Millennials are the most religiously and ethnically diverse generation to call themselves Americans. More than four in 10 identify as non-white, roughly one-third are religiously unaffiliated and only about one-quarter identify as white Christian. As this demographic evolution accelerates, perceptions about what it means to be American and what counts as typical will surely undergo significant changes. These changes are likely to produce feelings of increased cultural connectedness among blacks, Hispanics, non-Christians and the non-religious. It may also result in increased expressions of patriotism. Despite the value Americans place on individuality, when it comes to being proud of one's country, nothing is more important than being typical.