“A formula for civil war”: Second flag flown by Supreme Court Justice Alito dire sign for democracy

What every American should know about Alito's Appeal to Heaven flag

Published May 26, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Samuel Alito | An "Appeal To Heaven" flag waving as pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Samuel Alito | An "Appeal To Heaven" flag waving as pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The inverted United States flag is a mainstay in MAGA circles. When hoisted by a ship at sea it indicates that the vessel is in grave distress. The Tea Party flipped the flag to symbolize the distress inflicted upon the right by progressive taxation and a Black president. After the 2020 election, the Stop the Steal Movement made it a shorthand for their conspiracy theories of a stolen election.

In the days following the Jan. 6 insurrection, the New York Times recently reported, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito flew his American flag upside down. When asked why such a polarizing symbol was prominently displayed outside his home for several days, Alito gallantly blamed his wife for inverting Old Glory as a salvo in a political dispute with a neighbor who erected a “Fuck Trump” sign. 

One judicial ethics expert interviewed by the Washington Post flatly refused to believe that Alito— whose position demands the appearance of impartiality—would have knowingly allowed such an explosive symbol to be displayed outside his home for several days. Well, so much for that theory: On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that the Alitos unfurled an even more radically subversive symbol at their New Jersey beach house last summer: a white flag adorned with a single pine tree and the phrase “An Appeal to Heaven.” 

Many people are dimly aware that the Appeal to Heaven flag is connected to Trump and the insurrection, but what most don’t realize is that the banner is the calling card of a Christian supremacist movement seeking to impose theocracy on America. This non-denominational Christian tradition rooted in evangelism and Pentecostalism is known to scholars as the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). Leaders teach that the group’s political enemies are possessed by demons. 

Dr. Matthew Taylor is a senior scholar at the Institute for Islamic, Christian, & Jewish Studies in Maryland. His research revealed the preeminence of NAR Apostle Dutch Sheets in gathering the faithful to Washington on Jan. 6 to overturn the 2020 election for God. Sheets is the leading popularizer of the Appeal to Heaven flag as a symbol of revolutionary theocracy. In the run-up to Jan. 6, Sheets took pains to associate the Appeal to Heaven flag with Donald Trump and the prospect of his reelection. 

While Sheets and his fellow Apostles claim to abhor violence, their habit of exalting themselves as instruments of God while demonizing their opponents and working their followers into a frenzy sets the stage for political violence, as we saw on Jan. 6. 

The original Appeal to Heaven flag was commissioned for George Washington’s navy. The text references Enlightenment philosophy, not Biblical law. It comes from John Locke who argued that the people have the natural right to “appeal to heaven,” i.e. to start a revolution, if the government won’t address their grievances. The appeal to heaven is legit gangster in the original. It's the idea that only God can judge you if you wage a revolution against tyranny—assuming you've gone through all the proper earthly appeals first

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Most Americans would agree with it representing beleaguered colonists opposing a tyrannical king in the 1700s. However, the venerable flag has been co-opted by Christians who think Trump deserved a putsch because the courts refused to take his frivolous election fraud lawsuits seriously. 

“I don’t know if you can understand [the flag’s] denotation or its connotation without recognizing that there’s an implied threat of violence,” said Taylor, “We’ll only tolerate the current system for so long and then we’re going to fight.” 

Sheets repurposed the Appeal to Heaven flag in the 2010s as a symbol of his brand of Christian supremacy and embarked on a vigorous lobbying campaign to get powerful Republicans to display it. 

Sheets falsely claims talk of an “appeal to heaven” proves the Founding Fathers wanted a theocracy. This is ironic because Locke is the intellectual father of the separation of church and state. His famous letter on religious toleration argues that the state must never impose a religion on the people. 

Sheets believes that his version of Christianity trumps the rule of law. "I don't care what they say about marriage. It ain't over 'til God says it's over," Sheets said after the Supreme Court upheld gay marriage in 2015. "It's not settled law until God says it's settled law and we're going to change these things. There's got to be a hope that comes — if we appeal to heaven, He can turn this thing around."

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We don’t know how Alito, a devout Catholic, came to display a flag so closely linked to Protestant supremacy, but he’s not alone in Washington. Speaker Mike Johnson displays it outside his office. Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society has also flown the flag at his home. After Jan. 6, some Neo-Nazi groups started marching with the flag. 

Worse, the NAR’s beliefs about demons elevate Stop the Steal conspiracy theories to the realm of religious dogma, and thereby place their claims outside the realm of empirical evidence or reasoned debate.  

“If you believe the election was stolen by demons, you don’t have to prove it because it was stolen by demons,” Taylor explained, “Once you buy into that premise the sky is limit as to how far the radicalization can go.”

The implications for democracy are dire. “It’s a formula for chaos and at its most extreme it’s a formula for civil war,” Taylor said. His research shows that, far from being discredited by the failed insurrection, the New Apostolic Reformation has only become more popular and influential in the intervening years. 

As a Supreme Court Justice Alito is called upon to rule impartially on cases involving the insurrection, Donald Trump, election integrity, and the separation of church and state. His decision to fly a flag endorsing insurrection in the name of theocracy calls into question his impartiality on all of those issues.

By Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is a freelance journalist based in New York.

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