The Separation of Church and State

Why a Supreme Court justice’s embrace of the ‘Appeal to Heaven’ flag matters

  Rob Boston

Last week, Americans United called for a congressional investigation into Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito, whose New Jersey vacation home has displayed a controversial “Appeal to Heaven” flag.

So, what is this flag, and why is it a problem?

The banner, also known as the “Pine Tree Flag,” was originally used by some battalions during the American Revolution. It depicts a pine tree with the words “An Appeal to Heaven.”

Enter John Locke

Pine trees are common in New England and have been used on colonial flags since the 17th century. This particular flag pairs the tree with a phrase from English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). Locke, a powerful thinker whose writings influenced America’s founders, was an opponent of what was called the “divine right of kings,” the idea, common in some European nations, that the king was anointed by God and thus his actions could not be questioned.

Locke would have none of that. He believed in a right to revolution and in his 1690 work Second Treatise of Government observed, “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.”

It’s a nice rhetorical flourish, but not much more. And it’s ironic to see Locke embraced by Christian Nationalists. He’s considered to be the father of liberal thought and was an advocate of religious toleration – kind of. Locke would not have extended toleration to Roman Catholics and nonbelievers, and he seemed to believe that generalized government support of religion was necessary to keep the uneducated masses in line. But he also asserted that church and state serve different functions in society and insisted that churches should be supported voluntarily, not through state coercion.

As church-state scholar Leo Pfeffer noted in his book Church, State and Freedom, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison took Locke’s limited view of religious toleration and made it much more expansive, crafting what we know today as the separation of church and state.

Flag adopted by religious extremists

All this is well and good, but let’s get back to the Appeal to Heaven flag. After the revolution, it fell into obscurity. It’s fair to say most Americans had never heard of it. But about a decade ago, Dutch Sheets, a leader in a particularly virulent strain of Christian Nationalism known as the New Apostolic Reformation, adopted the flag; he even named his book after it. This faction incorporates the Seven Mountains Mandate, which calls on adherents to take dominion over seven spheres of influence in society, including the government.

As The New York Times reported, Sheets began urging politicians to display it to signal their Christian Nationalist sympathies. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has displayed the flag outside his office; U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) defiantly hung it outside his office last week after news about Alito broke. U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wisc.) and Pennsylvania state Senator and failed gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano also have flown the flag. And, of course, some of the insurrectionists who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, were hoisting it.

With its historical origins lost in the mists of time to most Americans, the flag has become a banner of Christian Nationalism, in the same manner that the Confederate battle flag is tied to racism. Anyone flying the Appeal to Heaven flag today must know this, and it’s safe to assume that these individuals are using it deliberately to make a statement – and that incudes Supreme Court justices.

That’s alarming – and worthy of congressional scrutiny.

Photo by Creative Commons user Djembayz


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