What the Pledge means
By Lee H. Hamilton
Center on Representative Government
You know the Pledge of Allegiance, probably by heart. You may recite it only occasionally, or get the chance several times a week. Sometimes, I’m guessing, you say it mechanically, and other times filled with deep meaning.
I hope it’s more often the latter, because here’s what’s remarkable about the Pledge: in a few short phrases, it lays out the fundamentals of what our country represents and strives to achieve.
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Let’s start with these words: “and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible.” It’s not just talking about any nation or form of government; it’s talking about a republic — a unified nation, under divine Providence, with three fully equal branches that are strong and independent.
The meaning goes even deeper than that. Really, we’re talking about power being dispersed across a large number of people and institutions. Our founders created a republic that to its core rejects autocratic political leadership and authoritarianism.
This, in turn, provides a system that has the capacity to reform and renew itself, because its institutions rest on the political involvement of our citizens. Government is bound by the electoral process, an independent judiciary, and constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech, assembly, religion and the press.
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This brings us to the final words: “with liberty and justice for all.” They represent a system built on individual dignity and respect for each person. We recognize and tolerate our differences. We may not always measure up to our ideals, but we certainly know what they are. We don’t try to demonize those who are different.
At heart, then, this is a system based on the belief that we’re all in this enterprise together, and all connected to one another. Everyone has the right to enjoy the promise of America.
Put these two parts of the Pledge together, and what it’s telling us is that we live in a system that binds us together by adherence to rules of political engagement, respect for the rule of law and belief in our democratic institutions.
What the country expects in return is that most individuals will live a life of honor, excellence and responsibility. The system demands hard work on the part of its citizens if it is to succeed.
So the next time you stand as the Pledge is recited, think about what you’re saying. It’s deceptively simple. But it packs a powerful message.
Former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government.