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How Is the ‘Appeal to Heaven’ Flag Spotted at Alito’s House Linked to Jan. 6?

appeal to heaven
A demonstrator carries a white "Appeal to Heaven" flag during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection in Washington. (Video screen grab)

(RNS) — When The New York Times reported Wednesday (May 22) that an “Appeal to Heaven” flag had been sighted last summer at a shore house owned by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, it wasn’t the first time the symbol had been linked to Christian judges and lawmakers.

The flag, which has ties to Christian nationalism and was repeatedly spotted among rioters at the Jan. 6 insurrection, was promoted by Sarah Palin in a 2015 Breitbart opinion column, was flown over the Arkansas Statehouse in 2015 thanks to former Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert and has been displayed outside U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson’s congressional office.

The flag dates back to the Revolutionary War, but according to Matthew Taylor, a senior scholar at the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies, the flag took on new meaning when it was embraced in 2013 by members of the New Apostolic Reformation, a movement led by self-titled modern-day apostles and prophets. It was an NAR leader who gifted the flag to Palin.

“It became this very coded symbol for this spiritual warfare campaign that’s about embracing this vision of a restoration of Christian America. Because this was soon after the Obergefell decision, the flag also became about opposing gay marriage and abortion,” Taylor told Religion News Service in an interview.

“The New Apostolic Reformation has proven, I would argue, over the last five to 10 years its incredible reach into the executive branch, into the legislative branch, and now we see also into the judicial branch,” said Taylor, noting that Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Parker was recently found to be connected to the New Apostolic Reformation. Parker made headlines in February when he wrote a Bible-saturated concurring opinion to an Alabama high court decision that equated  embryos with people.

Creator of the award-winning audio series “Charismatic Revival Fury” and author of the forthcoming book “The Violent Take It by Force,” Taylor is an expert on both the New Apostolic Reformation movement and its flag of choice. He spoke to RNS about the Appeal to Heaven flag’s links to former President Donald Trump, Christian nationalism and the Jan. 6 insurrection. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are the origins of the Appeal to Heaven flag?

It’s a Revolutionary War flag that has a long history of being a piece of Americana. The phrase “Appeal to Heaven” comes from a treatise by the philosopher John Locke. He argues that when people appeal to unjust governments that don’t listen, they eventually make an appeal to heaven. In other words, we go to war, and we’ll let God sort it out. George Washington commissioned this flag to fly over the Massachusetts Navy, and at least according to historical sources I’ve seen, he commissioned it in 1775.

When did the flag begin to take on new meaning?

In 2013, Dutch Sheets, a leader in the New Apostolic Reformation, was serving as the executive director of a charismatic, Pentecostal Bible college in Texas when he was presented with an Appeal to Heaven flag at a graduation ceremony. When Sheets received the flag, he also believed he received a prophecy that this flag was meant to be a symbol of a campaign to restore America to the Christian nation God intended. He set his sights on the 2016 election, and in 2015, he gave the flag to Sarah Palin, a longtime ally in NAR leadership networks. She wrote an op-ed arguing that government leaders need to start flying the flag over courthouses and statehouses.

Can you say more about the theology this flag came to represent?

Those in the New Apostolic Reformation believe that at the end of the 20th century, God was anointing new prophets and apostles to lead the church into global revival. A seminary professor named Peter Wagner coined this term to describe these massive campaigns that are designed to transform nations through prayer and spiritual warfare. He believed apostles and prophets are generals of spiritual warfare. Another leader, named Lance Wallnau, came into the network bringing this idea of the Seven Mountain Mandate.

You can divide society up into these seven spheres of authority: religion, family, government, education, media, arts and entertainment, commerce. And Christians need to conquer each of those seven arenas to let Christian influence flow down into society. Over time, the seven mountains became a political theology, and the NAR became the vanguard of Christian Trumpism. Notably, Sheets was obsessed with the Supreme Court.

All NAR leaders know that if you want to find a lever to change American policy, it’s the Supreme Court. And these fringe characters that have glommed onto Trump, their ideas have become so popular, they have really brought about a tectonic shift in the culture and leadership of the religious right in America within the last decade.