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The long history of the flag that flew outside Justice Alito's beach house

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Ships raised this flag during the Revolutionary War as they headed into battle - a white field emblazoned with a green pine tree. Fast-forward many years to 2023, when it flew outside a New Jersey beach house, specifically the New Jersey beach house of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. It's known as the Appeal to Heaven flag. And it's worth talking about because in recent years, that flag has become a symbol of the far-right evangelical movement, and it was carried by supporters of former President Donald Trump at the Capitol on January 6. Matthew Taylor is a senior scholar with the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies, and he has been tracing its origins and evolving meaning. Welcome.

MATTHEW TAYLOR: Thank you - glad to be here.

SUMMERS: First, I want to go back a bit, all the way back to the 1770s. Can you just start by telling us where this flag came from?

TAYLOR: Yeah. The story goes that in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War, George Washington commissioned this flag to fly over the Massachusetts Navy, such as it was at the time. And the phrase across the top of the flag is an appeal to heaven, which comes from a treatise from the philosopher John Locke, who was an inspiration to many in the revolutionary generation. And the idea of an appeal to heaven is you make an appeal to unjust governments and to tyrants, and you make appeal after appeal after appeal. And at some point, you stop making those appeals because they haven't been heard. And instead, you make an appeal to heaven, by which Locke seems to mean you go to war and you let God sort it out. And so it's in some ways a synonym for trial by combat, right? Like, God will judge who is the righteous party through this battle.

SUMMERS: So after the Revolutionary War, then, does this flag remain a symbol for early Americans? Does it disappear? What happens to it?

TAYLOR: You know, I have seen it pop up across quite a bit of American history. It's in history textbooks. It's just a piece of Americana. And it doesn't really have this shift in meaning until the year 2013, when a particular figure gets a hold of it and really starts to utilize it in a new way.

SUMMERS: Can you say more about that? What happened in 2013, and who was responsible for reintroducing it?

TAYLOR: So the figure - his name is Dutch Sheets. He's a pastor. He comes out of a movement called the New Apostolic Reformation, a pretty radical movement that exists in the nondenominational charismatic world. And Dutch Sheets is given this flag in a graduation ceremony and is presented with it and is told the story behind it, is told that this is the flag under which the United States was born. And he believes that he receives a prophecy that this flag is a symbol of a new spiritual revolution, a campaign of prayer and what they call spiritual warfare to, in his vision, restore America to its Christian roots and into alignment with what he understands God's will to be.

SUMMERS: So at this point, we don't actually know who put this flag up at the New Jersey beach house of Supreme Court Justice Alito. And we don't know what motivated the person who did that. But I am hoping you can help us understand how it is that this flag, the Appeal to Heaven flag, became such a part of present-day conservative culture.

TAYLOR: So the New Apostolic Reformation, which is the movement that has really popularized this flag - that doesn't mean that everyone who flies it is attached to the Apostolic Reformation, right? It's a meme that can travel, and it's a symbol that many people can attach themselves to. But Sheets really shifts this meaning. It spreads. It proliferates through social media, through prayer networks prior to the 2016 election. And then a couple of weeks before the 2020 election, Donald Trump is at a charismatic megachurch that is affiliated with the NAR in Las Vegas, and the pastor gets up on stage during his sermon and holds up the Appeal to Heaven flag. And somebody shoots a photo of the pastor holding that flag with Trump's head silhouetted in the foreground. And it becomes very much kind of the charismatic tie-in to the 2020 election and then becomes a big part of the campaign to overturn the 2020 election leading into January 6.

SUMMERS: Sheets seems to have been very successful in his advocacy. I mean, even House speaker Mike Johnson has displayed this flag outside his office. I have to ask you, were you surprised to see the news of the Appeal to Heaven flag flying at the house of a sitting Supreme Court justice?

TAYLOR: I was a little surprised, but I have to say I'm not shocked. These leaders, especially Dutch Sheets, served as the principal theological architects of the Capitol riot. They have created a lot of spiritual and religious propaganda around Donald Trump. And as Donald Trump has grown in popularity with American evangelicals, these NAR ideas and symbols have also grown in popularity because they are the things that are being attached to Trump and to religious devotion with Trump.

SUMMERS: That's Matthew Taylor, a religious scholar with the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies. Matthew, thank you.

TAYLOR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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