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.
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, independent, and each entrusted with limited and defined powers within their constitutional boundaries.
The meaning goes even deeper than that. Really, we're talking about power being dispersed across a large number of people and institutions. We're talking about a system that was designed by people who were so wary of concentrated power they made it difficult for any one person or institution to wield it.
They created a republic that to its core rejects autocratic political leadership and authoritarianism. It sees them as a threat to our democracy, and depends upon a system of elections in which ballots are counted fairly and citizens have equal voting rights.
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. Elected representatives make the laws, but government is bound by the electoral process, an independent judiciary, and constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech, assembly, religion and the press.
This brings us to the final words: "with liberty and justice for all." These are crucial to understand. They represent what some pundits have called a framework of decency: a system built on individual dignity and respect for each person. This is a monumental achievement - a country that seeks liberty and justice for all within its borders, and often beyond them, with no limitations or caveats. Liberty and justice are not reserved for white males, or even for citizens only.
In all this, we recognize and tolerate our differences. We may not always measure up to our ideals, but we certainly know what they are. We expect differences in race, religion and political beliefs. We don't try to demonize those who are different.
At heart, then, this is a system based on a core 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 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.
We may disagree about all kinds of issues, but we firmly believe in equal political rights and equal opportunity. "Liberty and justice for all" means giving individuals the space to make choices in their own lives that will enable them to flourish. What the country expects in return is 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.
(Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government, a distinguished scholar in the IU School of Global and International Studies, and a professor of practice with the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years).