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Outside Supreme Court justice’s home, a Revolution-era flag, now a call for Christian nationalism

Outside Supreme Court justice’s home, a Revolution-era flag, now a call for Christian nationalism

Demonstrators display a call for Christian nationalism at the Jan. 6, 2021, ‘Stop the Steal’ rally that preceded the storming of the Capitol. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
 
By Leslie Hahner, Baylor University and Scott J. Varda, Baylor University

 

Homes owned by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito have flown flags linked to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and the general effort of Donald Trump and his supporters to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

One, an upside-down American flag, is a longtime symbol of a vessel – or a nation – in distress, which Trump supporters adopted after the 2020 election. It was flown at Alito’s Virginia residence on Jan. 17, 2021, just 11 days after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

The other, flown in the summer of 2023 at an Alito family vacation home on the New Jersey shore, depicts a lone pine tree and bears the words “An Appeal to Heaven.” This flag, which is also sometimes called the “pine tree flag,” is a relic of the Revolutionary era and represents strength against tyrannical foes. As with all long-used symbols, the pine tree flag has a rich history of uses and continues to shift its connotations over time.

We are scholars of visual and political rhetoric who study the cultural meaning ascribed to symbols, such as flags, and how those symbols function in the world. Given what we know of symbolism, the Appeal to Heaven flag offers both historic connotations and new ones.

A Colonial history

The image appearing on the Appeal to Heaven flag originated in 1652 when the colony of Massachusetts ordered the minting of pine tree shillings, which were coins cast with pine trees on them.

The lone pine tree is a symbol of New England, while the phrase “An Appeal to Heaven” on the flag comes from a 1775 resolution by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.

The 1775 resolution drew inspiration from English philosopher John Locke. Locke argued in 1690 that individuals may “appeal to heaven” when their rights have been denied. The phrase and image on the flag mark the right to revolt against a tyrannical government.

As if to confirm the revolutionary meaning of the flag, in 1775, six schooners commanded by George Washington flew the flag while confronting British ships.

Modern uses

Today, the flag appears in social movements for different causes. For instance, in 2020 the Appeal to Heaven flag appeared at a Black Lives Matter protest dance party in Washington, D.C.

But, that is not its most common current use. Beginning in 2013, the Appeal to Heaven flag took on Christian nationalist overtones. Christian nationalism refers to a set of ideological beliefs that champion the U.S. as a wholly Christian nation ordained by God.

South Carolina minister Dutch Sheets used social and traditional media to promote the flag. Sheets spread the belief that the U.S. should be a Christian nation, which ought to be governed through the belief in Christian supremacy.

Over the past decade, Sheets and his fellow believers took the flag to state capitol buildings and other public events to promote his efforts to elect evangelical Christian leaders to political offices.

On Jan. 6, 2021, the flag appeared in the hands of insurrectionists, including the Proud Boys. As insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, the Appeal to Heaven flag was one of many symbols that led the charge of violence. After the harrowing events of that day, the flag was more intimately connected to “Stop the Steal” efforts, alongside pro-Trump sloganeering overall.

In a Jan. 31, 2024, Facebook post, a flag company advertised the Appeal to Heaven flag with a lengthy description, including noting that its meaning “transcends its historical origins” and is “(p)opular among Republicans and Christians … seen as a symbol of Christian nationalism.”

In the years since, the flag has been displayed by elected officials such as House Speaker Mike Johnson, who placed it outside his congressional office. Arizona State Sen. Janae Shamp has used it on her desk in the Arizona Senate chamber. Federalist Society co-chair Leonard Leo, the conservative court activist who has directed contributions totaling hundreds of millions of dollars to reshape the federal judiciary, has flown it outside his home in Maine.

The Louisiana state flag and the 'Appeal to Heaven' flag are displayed in a hallway.
House Speaker Mike Johnson displays the ‘Appeal to Heaven’ flag alongside the Louisiana state flag outside his office door. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

 

A signal to those in the know

Despite the flag’s clear links to Christian nationalist ideology, some defenders of Alito say that’s not what the flag means.

For instance, Carrie Campbell Severino accused “the news establishment” of “trying to rewrite” the history of “this Revolutionary War flag” as “somehow connected with January 6th.” Severino suggested this idea was “totally ludicrous.” She is the president of the Leo-linked Concord Fund, formerly the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative advocacy group described as possessing “unmatched influence … in shaping the federal judiciary.”

Alito denied knowing the meaning of the flag in a May 29, 2024, letter responding to inquiries from members of Congress. The New York Times quoted his letter as saying:

I was not aware of any connection between that historic flag and the ‘Stop the Steal Movement,’ and neither was my wife. … 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.”

Some commentators on the flag controversy wondered aloud about the coded meaning of the flag, while others insist the flag is a “dog whistle” to pro-Trump and Christian nationalist ideologues. The flag may be a symbol most people would overlook but which speaks to a select audience. Research has found that racial and religious dog whistles help “mobilize … support for racially resentful” white Christian voters, “without alienating others.”

The meanings of symbols, such as this flag, necessarily change over time. And while Alito’s actual beliefs might be difficult to know, the recent revelations should increase attention to how the flag symbolizes a cluster of beliefs shared among conservative activists, Christian nationalists and those who seek to impose their radical views on the country.The Conversation

Leslie Hahner, Associate Professor of Communication, Baylor University and Scott J. Varda, Associate Professor of Communication, Baylor University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

This post was originally published on this site

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