The History Behind The Controversial ‘Appeal To Heaven’ Flag

People carry an “Appeal To Heaven” flag as they gather to support President Donald Trump during his visit to the National Constitution Center to participate in an ABC News town hall in September 2020, in Philadelphia. (Michael Perez/AP via CNN Newsource)

By AJ Willingham, CNN

(CNN) — Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito has been criticized for a flag flown at his New Jersey vacation house that has ties to both the American Revolution and far-right ideologies. The “Appeal to Heaven” flag, as it is commonly called, also stands outside of House Speaker Mike Johnson’s office in the Capitol building and has been proudly displayed by other Republican lawmakers. It has also appeared among crowds at far-right rallies and at the January 6 Capitol insurrection.

Like many flags and historical symbols, the Appeal to Heaven flag has multiple meanings and has been used in differing capacities. The flag served as a naval ensign in Massachusetts until 1971, and until recently, flew outside San Francisco’s city hall alongside other historic flags.

Here’s a look at its long history, and why it is controversial for some people now.

What is ‘An Appeal to Heaven?’

The Appeal to Heaven flag, or “Pine Tree” flag, features a green pine tree on a white field, with the words “An Appeal to Heaven” in black text above it.

It was originally commissioned under George Washington’s leadership of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, a history that Alito, Johnson and others point to when defending their own use of the flag against claims of right-wing extremist views. The phrase “An Appeal to Heaven” comes from a passage of British philosopher John Locke’s “Second Treatise on Government” that outlines his interpretation of a people’s right to revolution:

And where the body of the people, or any single man, is deprived of their right, or is under the exercise of a power without right, and have no appeal on earth, then they have a liberty to appeal to heaven, whenever they judge the cause of sufficient moment.”

As for the pine tree, it became a symbol of American resistance after the Pine Tree Riot, one of several clashes between American colonists and British royal powers that led to the American Revolution. The pine tree retained this meaning of resistance, and has appeared on some state flags and seals. The pine tree is also still a beloved regional symbol in New England. A similar flag — with a green pine in a white canton on a red field — is flown throughout the region.

How the flag came to be associated with far-right politics

The Appeal to Heaven flag is now also associated with American far-right movements and supporters of former President Donald Trump. The flag has appeared at Trump rallies, and it appeared among crowds at the January 6 insurrection. It is also ingrained into the rhetoric of Christian Nationalism.

However, its gradual integration into far-right politics actually started far before the Trump era — and its significance during the American Revolution is a key reason why.

“This flag is part of a broader effort by the far right to recall the principles of the American Revolution and import them into antidemocratic efforts,” says Jemar Tisby, an author and professor at Simmons College in Kentucky who studies Christian nationalism.

The American Revolution, Tisby says, is seen by these groups as a “righteous rebellion against an unjust, intrusive government,” and thus a fertile ground from which to reap symbols and ideologies for their current political aims.

This theme can be traced back to the emergence of the tea party movement (another homage to the American Revolution), the conservative political movement that took root in the early days of President Barack Obama’s first term around 2009.

The Tea Party movement called for a reduction in government influence, but was also closely related to far-right populism and racial animus in response to Obama’s election to office. It greatly influenced the Republican party and was leveraged by Trump during his victorious 2016 presidential campaign.

Around this time another Revolutionary-era flag, the Gadsden flag, also began to see a resurgence. Depicting a black snake on a yellow background with the words “Don’t Tread on Me,” the Gadsden flag is now a common symbol among libertarian and conservative groups — and it, too, is often flown during far-right gatherings.

In 2015, the Appeal to Heaven flag was given another boost in popularity by Dutch Sheets, an influential conservative Christian author and pastor. Sheets organized a nationwide tour that year called “An Appeal to Heaven” during which he specifically linked the flag, and the American Revolution, to concepts of Christian nationalism.

At a tour stop in Ohio in 2015, Sheets invoked the Supreme Court’s recent decision on same-sex marriage and ongoing political battles about abortion rights.

“It’s not settled law until God says it’s settled law and we’re going to change these things,” Sheets said. “There’s got to be a hope that comes. If we appeal to heaven, he can turn this thing around.”

This, Tisby says, is another way the flag’s message can be co-opted by Christian nationalists.

“This is why the Appeal to Heaven flag is also a symbol of White Christian nationalism, because it links their cause to God’s will as an appeal to heaven or a higher power,” he says. “That way, the movement appears to transcend political earthly authority, and becomes a divine right.”

Recent events have shed new light on the flag’s meanings

Until recently, the Appeal to Heaven flag was relatively unknown in the public consciousness. When the Associated Press asked Speaker Mike Johnson about the one displayed outside his office, he said he wasn’t aware the flag was associated with far-right politics or the “Stop the Steal” movement.

“People misuse our symbols all the time. It doesn’t mean we don’t use the symbols anymore,” he said.

Alito said the flag seen flying outside his vacation home was selected by his wife and was an homage to George Washington.

“I was not aware of any connection between that historic flag and the ‘Stop the Steal Movement,’ and neither was my wife,” Alito told lawmakers in a letter stating his refusal to recuse from cases involving the 2020 presidential election or the January 6 insurrection. “She did not fly it to associate herself with that or any other group, and the use of an old historic flag by a new group does not necessarily drain that flag of all other meanings.”

Alito is also under scrutiny for an upside-down American flag that was spotted outside his home in early 2021 — a universal symbol of a country in crisis. Alito said this, too, was his wife’s decision.

However, the polarizing recent history of the Appeal to Heaven flag is starting to become known. This week, the city of San Francisco made the decision to remove an “Appeal to Heaven” flag that flew alongside several other flags over City Hall.

“This flag was originally used during the American Revolutionary War, flown by George Washington’s cruisers, and is associated with the early quest for American independence,” San Francisco Recreation and Parks communications manager Daniel Montez told CNN. “It’s since been adopted by a different group — one that doesn’t represent the city’s values, so we made the decision to swap it with the American flag.”

CNN’s Josh Du Lac contributed to this story. 

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.