In America, the education of citizens in government begins at a young age at public school, sports events, church meetings, and other public assemblies. At such places and events people of all ages look to the flag, a piece of cloth made of three colors–red, white, and blue–, with thirteen stripes and fifty stars in a field of blue; we place our hands over our hearts, and we recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
What does it mean to stand before the American flag and say these words?
“I pledge”: to pledge is to commit oneself to an action or ideal–it is a singular act done not under compulsion but voluntarily.
“Allegiance”: allegiance refers to loyalty to a higher authority. Formerly, it implied a personal vow to a lord or king. Today, it means a citizen making a commitment to a state.
“Flag”: a flag is an icon, a symbolic representation of a people or group. It has been used since ancient times to identify people as common adherents to a place, government, king, or idea.
“United States of America”: a unified country with fifty states in a federal system of division of power. The United States of America (USA, or simply, America) is also an idea that represents freedom of choice leading people to stand willingly together under one belief (democratic-republicanism).
“One Nation”: Even in a pluralistic society we have one particular law that we all live under, one law that unites us, and that law is the Constitution of the United States.
“Under God”: Awareness that humans are dependent upon the divine, that a godless society cannot operate on principles of justice, liberty, and equality. Also a commitment to a society where God is recognized and worshiped. Nevertheless, we also have developed a tradition of separation of church and state.
“Indivisible”: that is, under a perpetual union: fifty states will always be equal, will always be a part of the federal republic.
“Liberty”: which derives from a Latin word that originally meant free. Hence to have liberty is to have freedom–of movement, of belief, of action (as long as liberty is consistent with order and the rights of others).
“Justice”: which derives from a Latin word that originally meant law, right. Hence to have justice is to experience a society that operates according to law and according to what is deemed right–a moral good.
“For all”: All is an inclusive word, meaning no one is excluded. All is in contrast to some, few, one. All implies diversity and pluralism, implies every resident in a given region. Over the centuries America has had a problem with the inclusion of all–women, Blacks, Hispanics, gays, Native Americans, Jews, Catholics, atheists, convicts, the poor, and especially, children.
Basic political ideas that are implied in the Pledge of Allegiance include:
1) Rule of Law: No human is above the law, which is based on assumed codes of what is right and good according to God and nature, the product of congresses of equal humans legislating codes and standards of behavior.
2) Democracy: “rule of the people,” a government based on the collective decisions of equals who directly participate in government.
3) Republicanism: “public matters,” a government based on representatives of the people who indirectly participate in government.
4) Freedom: free will of each person to have their own private beliefs, to go where they will, to possess private property, to worship as they choose, to present their petitions, to vote or select representatives.
5) Citizenship: a citizen is a member of a community who has rights of freedom and to vote as well as responsibilities to obey laws, work for the good of the whole, and promote and defend the community.
6) Federalism: a central (federal) government that works in cooperation with fifty individual state governments as well as with the hundreds of local and county governments.
The Pledge of Allegiance is something we memorize as children, often without the least understanding of what it means; and yet, it means everything.