Opinion | The history of the flag at Justice Alito’s beach house makes its presence more chilling

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News that an Appeal to Heaven flag was seen flying outside the beach house of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito marks the second report in the space of a week that a symbol used by Jan. 6 insurrectionists was seen outside one of his residences. According to the report from The New York Times, which has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, the flag was photographed flying at the home on multiple occasions between July and September 2023. Alito has remained silent about how and why the flag came to be flying at his property, but the more one knows about the background of the flag, the more chilling its presence at his house becomes.

This flag, which bears the words “Appeal to Heaven” and an image of a green pine tree, is an unmistakable emblem for an influential segment of Christian nationalists who claim the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, contrary to God’s will, and that believers’ spiritual warfare is essential to restoring God’s anointed leader to his rightful office. It was one of numerous Christian nationalist flags and other iconography carried by Trump supporters Jan. 6 and at the Jericho March, a series of prayer rallies that were like jet fuel for the insurrection. The Jericho March featured right-wing evangelical and Catholic speakers alongside militants such as conspiracist Alex Jones, Trump’s disgraced national security adviser Michael Flynn, and Oathkeepers founder Stewart Rhodes, now serving an 18-year prison sentence for seditious conspiracy and other crimes.

The Appeal to Heaven flag originated in Revolutionary times as a call to take up arms against unjust rulers who ignored the pleas of their citizens. But after years as a historical relic, in 2015 the flag was popularized by Dutch Sheets, an influential figure in the New Apostolic Reformation. The NAR’s founder, C. Peter Wagner, drew on existing strands and trends in charismatic Christianity to create a powerful network of self-proclaimed apostles and prophets who claimed to be leading a revolution in Christianity. NAR’s adherents, as religion scholar and MSNBC columnist Anthea Butler has written, believe “the government should be run by Christians in order to cleanse the world for Christ’s coming.” They promote spiritual warfare, including spiritual “mappings” to identify demonic forces in communities, and “power encounters” like exorcisms “to cleanse not only people, but cities and communities.” They envision not only a Christian nation, but also a new Christianity at the head of it.

Sheets is a prominent “prophet” in the world of the NAR. He claims to receive dreams and visions from God about world events, including the 2020 election and its aftermath. According to the Times, in his 2015 book Sheets maintained that God had “resurrected” the Appeal to Heaven flag and urged his readers to “Wave it outwardly: wear it inwardly. Appeal to heaven daily for a spiritual revolution that will knock out the Goliaths of our day.” Sheets made multiple appearances in Christian media after the 2020 election, claiming that the election was stolen and that demonic forces were behind this supposed fraud. Christian nationalist support for Trump’s attempts to overturn the election results was suffused with themes of spiritual battles against mighty, seemingly unbeatable forces. The Jericho March’s overriding message was that the participants were brave warriors against forces of “corruption,” whose prayers were going to cause the “walls” of the “deep state” to fall, like the walls of Jericho in the Bible.

Matthew D. Taylor, Protestant scholar at the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, and the author of a forthcoming book about the New Apostolic Reformation, told me that Sheets “believes he has a special anointing on his life, and a special anointing to bring the American government into alignment with his interpretation of Christianity, including, especially, the Supreme Court.” Sheets has claimed, for example, that his “apostolic decrees” helped swing the 2000 election to George W. Bush and that he prophesied changes at the Supreme Court after the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist (who were replaced by Alito and John Roberts, respectively).

“Christian supremacists,” as Taylor describes Sheets and his allies, “would like to see the Supreme Court rule according to his interpretation of the Bible, that the law of God would become the supreme law of the land.” The court’s 2015 decision legalizing marriage equality dismayed Sheets, like many on the right, and he took a particular interest in the 2016 election. “They are praying for total changeover in American culture to restore America to its original covenantal purposes and covenantal arrangement with God,” Taylor said. “Abortion and same-sex marriage are seen as impediments to this.” While Sheets claims to be calling for a spiritual revolution, Taylor said, the Appeal to Heaven flag nonetheless signals “an implied threat of violence.”

After Sheets’ book, the flag’s use skyrocketed in evangelical communities connected to the NAR. It even received a boost from former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who said Sheets gave her one of her own. In 2020, the flag increasingly became highly associated with Trump and then the insurrection. Taylor said neo-Nazi and other extremist groups have since adopted it, as well.

According to Taylor, the flag’s use and significance spread like wildfire in some evangelical communities, even as other Americans were unaware of its popularity or meaning. But Alito is not just an ordinary citizen; he’s one of the nine most powerful jurists in the country. The leading proponent of the flag has very specifically taken an interest in the actions of the high court, and we already know from previous reporting that Alito is cozy enough with some evangelical activists to dine with them.

Legitimate questions need to be answered about who else had access to the justice. And Americans cannot be kept in the dark about how this radical antidemocratic symbol came to fly outside his house. The public particularly needs to know before the court decides, in the coming weeks, Trump’s claim that he is immune from prosecution for Jan. 6. If Alito acquired the flag on his own and chose to fly it, the public needs to know why. The flag’s proponents want a Christian supremacist revolution against the government. Does Alito?

This article was originally published on MSNBC.com