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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Saeed Shihab studies for the MCAT at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 22, 2017.

Saeed Shihab was born and raised in Salt Lake City, but the University of Utah senior is used to being asked when he'll return home.

"People see that I'm a Muslim, that I have a beard, darker skin and the name Saeed, and they think I'm from somewhere else," he said.

From a young age, he received mean looks from strangers in grocery store aisles and extra attention from school authorities. He learned to downplay his faith and make jokes about his discomfort — working hard to belong in a society that sometimes distrusts difference.

"I don't fit people's idea of who an American is," said Shihab, 21.

That's because some U.S. adults believe Americans should be Christians, as a variety of recent surveys found.

Nearly 6 in 10 white evangelical Protestants — and 33 percent of U.S. adults overall — say being a Christian is a "very important" part of being "truly American," Pew Research Center reported in February. Four in 10 Americans think a culture grounded in Christianity is an extremely or very important piece of America's national identity, according to a new survey from the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs.

Depending on who you ask, the United States is either a protector of religious freedom for all or a defender of traditional Christian values. Varying assumptions about who counts as an American have created conflict during the past election season and beyond, impacting decisions about whether Muslim refugees and immigrants threaten national security and responses to a rise in hate crimes against religious minorities.

These debates draw attention to the complex relationship between religious identity and national identity within the U.S., which has caused political tension since the country's founding, said Andrea Weiss, who is coordinating a campaign called "American Values Religious Voices," which posts a letter online about what it means to be an American for each of the first 100 days of the Trump administration.

"Does your vision of what makes America great only include white, Christian America or is it a glorious mosaic of all different faiths, races and ethnicities? There is real conflict between citizens' views," she said.

In reality, America is both a melting pot of diverse religious identities and a Christian nation because its leaders have long struggled to balance a desire for religious pluralism with a fear of unfamiliar faith groups, said Daniel Dreisbach, author of "Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers."

"Religion is a very important part of the American story going back to the time of the Pilgrims and Puritans," he said. "But even those who came here for religious liberty weren't terribly welcoming of people dissenting from their community's beliefs."

Why Americans care about Christianity

America's Founding Fathers used the Bible as a reference text, drawing on its key teachings even as they designed a nation without a religious test for citizenship, Dreisbach noted.

"It was a biblically literate time. Many Americans would have learned to read by using the Bible," he said.

In other words, early American leaders saw no incongruity in their reliance on challenging or inspiring Bible verses and their desire to create a country that welcomed more than just Christians. They didn't intentionally build a society in which Muslims like Shihab would struggle to thrive, Dreisbach said.

Saeed Shihab, left, chats with his friend Franco Jin outside of the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 22, 2017. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

The problem was that a functional democracy required virtuous citizens. And for many early Americans, their Christian faith was their source of virtue. Minutes from 18th-century political meetings include people's concerns about whether broad religious freedom laws would open the borders to "infidels," who weren't steeped in the Protestant tradition.

"Prejudices weren't completely detached from any logic," Dreisbach said.

Although America has shifted from predominately Protestant to 46.5 percent Protestant in the centuries since the Constitution was written, there's an enduring belief that people must be Christian, or at least believe in God, to be a good citizen, he added.

In June 2015, Public Religion Research Institute reported that nearly 7 in 10 U.S. adults say believing in God is a "very" or "somewhat" important part of being truly American.

This research helps explain why atheists remain relatively unpopular presidential candidates. Fifty-eight percent of Americans would vote for a generally well-qualified atheist for president, compared to 60 percent who would vote for a Muslim, 81 percent who would vote for a Mormon, 91 percent who would vote for a Jew and 93 percent who would vote for a Catholic, according to a June 2015 Gallup poll.

"Americans associate virtue with religion," Dreisbach said.

Some people may balk at those who continue to see Christianity as a primary piece of the American identity, said Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. However, it's hard to argue against the idea that human dignity, free will, tolerance and other Christian values were central to the blueprint from which the country was built.

"It's impossible to imagine America as it is today without the influence of Christianity or religion or belief in God," he said.

Tempted into discrimination

While a third of Americans who believe that being a Christian is a very important part of being American represents a minority, that's a higher percentage than in many other countries, where the rise of secularism and other historical factors influence the relationship between national identity and Christianity.

Fewer than 1 in 5 citizens of the United Kingdom (18 percent) say that being Christian is a very important part of being British and only 15 percent of people who live in Canada say the same about being Canadian, according to the Pew Research Center. This perception of identity is most prominent in Greece, where 54 percent of citizens say being a Christian is essential to being Greek.

As Tooley said, linking the question of who counts as an American with Christianity doesn't automatically imply ill will toward other faiths. Survey respondents might simply be acknowledging the role the Bible and Christian Founding Fathers played in designing our democracy.

"Obviously America is not a theocracy. Faith is not required to be a citizen, nor should it be," Tooley said.

However, assumptions about who makes a good citizen can certainly be taken advantage of, leading to dangerous consequences, Weiss said.

"We've seen people who have a monolithic view (of who Americans should be) take out a shotgun and shoot someone who is different," she said, referring to recent violence aimed at religious and ethnic minorities, including Indian immigrants and Sikhs.

The truth is that Americans have been willing to ignore or circumvent religious freedom protections for minority faith groups several times over the last two and a half centuries, wrote Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University, for Politico this month.

"American politics has a long history of questioning the 'real' status of religions — generally with an eye to stripping their members of constitutional rights," he said. "In the past it wasn't Muslims who were under fire, however. It was Roman Catholics and Mormons."

When European immigrants caused the size of the Catholic community to surge around the turn of the 20th century, American lawmakers lowered immigration quotas from Catholic-majority countries to stem the flow of non-Protestant newcomers. This policy shift is one example of how people's beliefs about who is truly American affect "who we let in and who we kick out," Weiss said.

Religious identities and the American identity

Growing up, Shihab was keenly aware of the tense relationship between his religious identity and his life as an American. After 9/11, it seemed like the term 'Muslim' was synonymous with 'terrorist' and that he would always feel hopelessly out of place in his community.

"There's a dissonance between what we teach kids in school about inclusivity — how every man is created equal — and how we treat anyone who isn't a stereotypical American," Shihab said.

Scholars said a certain amount of tension between America's pluralistic aspirations and the experiences of citizens like Shihab is inevitable. It's nearly impossible to protect religious freedom in every instance of fear or misunderstanding.

Saeed Shihab walks to the library at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 22, 2017.

However, they noted that tension can be lessened with the help of people of faith, who might actually have the tools to be the best citizens, whether or not they always use them.

"We need to remind everyone of what our faith traditions have to say about core American values like pluralism, compassion and equality," Weiss said.

One of the goals of the "American Values Religious Voices" campaign was to draw attention to the teachings of lesser known faith communities, who are sometimes mistakenly seen as a threat to American ideals, she added.

"We got together scholars representing all sorts of religions and races. I had this vision of putting their pictures together on one page to say, 'This is what America really looks like. This is what makes America great,'" Weiss said.

In addition to highlighting diversity, each published letter increases religious literacy, or people's understanding of the faiths they don't practice. Participants write about how their faith challenges them to be better citizens and neighbors, sharing perspectives that readers may not have encountered before.

Saeed Shihab studies for the MCAT at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 22, 2017.(Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Shihab takes on a similar mission in his daily life, and he noted that talking about religion with friends and strangers is a good way to broaden people's conception of who's truly American. Since enrolling at the University of Utah, he's welcomed opportunities to talk about his Muslim faith, including how it makes him a better American, not a more dangerous one.

"I took it upon myself to basically teach people about my religion if they asked. I say, 'This is what a normal Muslim is: he's a student; he works; he has friends; he is sad sometimes and happy other times; and he goes to the gym," Shihab said.

There may be some people who still question whether a Muslim can be truly American, but his classmates have embraced him. On March 10, Shihab was elected student body vice president.

"One of the big things we were running on was the whole idea of inclusivity within the university," he said. "Students who are nontraditional need a voice. They're as welcome here as anyone else."

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com, Twitter: @kelsey_dallas