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The Appeal to Heaven flag stands with the Louisiana state flag outside the district office of Speaker of the House Mike Johnson in the Cannon House Office Building.
The Appeal to Heaven flag stands with the Louisiana state flag outside the district office of Speaker of the House Mike Johnson. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The ‘Appeal to Heaven’ Flag Is All Over Capitol Hill

Republicans are only clinging to the flag tighter after it became more controversial in recent weeks.

Two years later, the conversation still stands out to Rep. Don Bacon.

A woman at a conservative event tried to explain to him that she wanted a patriot who would fight. Bacon, a Nebraska Republican, told her he’d served in the Air Force for nearly 30 years and had been deployed in combat four times. He sees himself as a patriot.

“No,” he remembered her responding. “We want someone who’s going to fight for our country. Literally fight.”

He was taken aback. “We don’t want to have a revolution. We don’t want a civil war in our country,” he said he told the group. “By the way, we live in the greatest country in the world. How do you guys not see that?”

Conversations like this aren’t uncommon between Republican politicians and their voters. People itching for a rebellion — or who are, at least, open to one — don’t make up the majority, Bacon told NOTUS. But they’re vocal. They show up to meetings. “And,” as Bacon said, “they’ve taken over most of the state parties.”

The most ardent among them have their own symbols and in-group signals to show off their willingness to fight. And some Republican lawmakers are now openly adopting them.

As of last week, at least 10 House Republicans were displaying one of those symbols outside their offices in Washington: the “Appeal to Heaven” flag.

The flag, which features a pine tree on a white background with the text, “An Appeal to Heaven,” has existed since the nation’s fight for independence. The quote comes from an Enlightenment-era treatise in which John Locke laid out the right of revolution, the concept that people facing tyranny could appeal to God — and take up arms for deliverance.

Some of George Washington’s troops flew the flag during the Revolutionary War, and state and local governments across the country have displayed the colors at various times since.

But the flag is more than a historical artifact for some Republicans, who seem to want to apply the right of revolution to today’s American politics.

The flag, with its message about confronting tyrants, gets to the very core of the Republican Party’s identity crisis. For a large swath of the GOP, “tyranny” can be a public health push for vaccinations, or a court trial against a politician they support, or even election results they don’t like.

On Jan. 6, 2021, as a mob of former President Donald Trump’s supporters tried to overturn the 2020 election, the flag could be seen outside the Capitol. It’s become a favorite symbol for Christian nationalists. And it’s received new attention in recent weeks after The New York Times reported that it once flew over Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s vacation home. (That news coverage prompted the city of San Francisco to stop flying the flag in its civic center plaza last week after having it there for decades.)

Bacon doesn’t fly the flag outside his office, but he said he doesn’t have a problem with it, even if it’s been embraced by people on the far right. He’d rather hold onto a symbol with such a long history than hand it over to the political fringes.

“I don’t think any one group has a right to appropriate our heritage,” he told NOTUS. “I personally like our heritage.”

House Republicans who display it outside their Capitol offices told NOTUS they simply wanted to honor Washington and hearken back to those Enlightenment ideas. But now that the flag has become so controversial, imbued with so much contentious meaning by so many on the far right, it’s hard to ignore that there may now be another message intended.

Democratic lawmakers, for instance, see the Appeal to Heaven flag as an insidious symbol of election denialism and extremist religious views.

“This is not love-thy-neighbor Christianity; it’s a violent movement that openly calls for theocracy and Christian dominance throughout society,” Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat, told NOTUS via text, after writing an op-ed last week about the flags. “While the media avoids or sugarcoats all of this, Christian nationalist leaders are boasting of a ‘Seven Mountains’ army at all levels of government, including 100 members of Congress.”

“I’ve seen enough — including the ‘Appeal to Heaven’ flag outside Speaker Mike Johnson’s office — to believe them,” Huffman added.

Johnson is the most powerful lawmaker displaying the flag. He told the Associated Press he hadn’t heard that it was associated with the “Stop the Steal” effort to keep Trump in power. But Johnson himself was involved in that effort in 2020, leading an amicus brief and coaxing signatures from other Republican lawmakers in a Texas lawsuit that sought to overturn the election results in other states.

“I have always used that flag for as long as I can remember, because I was so enamored with the fact that Washington used it,” Johnson told the AP. “People misuse our symbols all the time. It doesn’t mean we don’t use the symbols anymore.”

Heaven Flag (Lauren Boebert) NOTUS-Haley Byrd Wilt
Along with the national and Colorado state flags, Rep. Lauren Boebert displays other flags with controversial messaging and symbols. Haley Byrd Wilt/NOTUS

Most Republican lawmakers likewise avoided drawing a direct connection between the flag and modern politics. Rep. Eric Burlison of Missouri, another Republican who displays the flag, told NOTUS he appreciates it as “a reminder of our nation’s history.”

“It was one of the first decorations that I displayed in my office after being elected to Congress,” he said in a statement. “It reminds me of the sacrifices of those that came before us.”

“This flag embodies our shared American aspirations for a brighter future,” he added. “If you love the history of the United States of America, you should love the story of this flag.”

Rep. Barry Loudermilk, a Georgia Republican, said he’d displayed the flag since his first week in Congress in 2015. In a statement, he noted it represents Locke’s political ideology and was flown by some of Washington’s troops.

“If someone, or a group, uses this flag as part of a movement, it does not change the true meaning of the phrase emblazoned on this banner, nor does it alter its important role in our nation’s history,” Loudermilk told NOTUS. “History is only rewritten when we allow others to redefine the objects and symbols of our nation.”

But in some instances, Republicans themselves seem to be rewriting the meaning of these symbols — even as they maintain that the flag isn’t what Democrats claim.

“If displaying a flag that represents my reliance on God rather than the government for freedom and protection is controversial, I am happy to be controversial,” Rep. Barry Moore, an Alabama Republican, told NOTUS in a statement Thursday. “Democrats often want to twist history to fit their narrative, but George Washington commissioned this flag as a symbol of the colonists’ reliance on God to save them from the King’s tyranny, and our First Amendment allows me to fly it proudly.”

A few hours after Moore’s spokesperson sent NOTUS that statement, however, the country learned a verdict in Trump’s criminal trial in New York was imminent. As the nation waited to learn the jury’s decision, Moore posted an image of the Appeal to Heaven flag on social media without any caption.

That tweet came shortly after Moore posted separately about the trial, claiming that “politically motivated prosecutors and judges have been weaponized against Trump to convict him at any cost.” It was followed by another post from Moore — this one lamenting the jury’s conviction of Trump on all 34 felony counts.

When asked about posting the flag, seemingly in the context of the trial, his office told NOTUS he was participating in a House Freedom Caucus messaging campaign “in support of the flag” on social media.

Rep. Jim Banks, an Indiana Republican who doesn’t fly the Appeal to Heaven flag outside his D.C. office, similarly posted a captionless image of it as Trump’s guilty verdict was being read in the courtroom. Asked for clarity on what message Banks hoped to convey with the post, his spokesperson said Friday that he wouldn’t have time to confirm the details with the congressman before a deadline that afternoon provided by NOTUS. When told this article would publish on Monday and the deadline for a response could be extended, the spokesperson didn’t reply.

As of last week, Reps. Lauren Boebert, Glenn Grothman, Josh Brecheen, Warren Davidson, Michael Cloud and Gary Palmer also displayed the flag outside their D.C. offices. (Those lawmakers did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

Each House member has the option to display several flags outside their office. By default, lawmakers start with their state flags and the American flag, and the most common third choice is the prisoners of war and missing in action remembrance flag. Others choose to include a military service branch’s flag, perhaps one they served in. But the various flags do sometimes stir up controversy.

Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene got in a spat in 2021 with her office neighbor, Democratic Rep. Marie Newman, over a flag. Newman, who has a transgender daughter, displayed the transgender identity flag after Greene made comments opposing an LGBTQ rights bill in the House. Greene then put up a sign across the hall from Newman declaring that there are only “TWO genders.”

Greene has also been the most outspoken GOP lawmaker in favor of secession. She has repeatedly called for a “national divorce” between red and blue states.

The night Trump was found guilty in the New York trial, she posted an image of an upside-down American flag, a sign of distress increasingly used by his supporters.

Conservatives who have opposed Trump said they don’t feel as alarmed by the Appeal to Heaven flag as other symbols used by the far right — such as the upside-down flag — and they agreed with Republican lawmakers who said they want to preserve its historical significance.

David French — a conservative columnist and Trump critic who has written a book about the prospect of another civil war (and is also a former colleague) — said the Appeal to Heaven flag’s long history makes its use dependent on context.

“If someone’s flying one of those flags, nine times out of 10, you’re looking at somebody who’s very, very MAGA,” he said. “But not 10 times out of 10.”

“The decision to fly that flag doesn’t necessarily indicate political radicalism, especially when you’re talking about some of the displays in front of government buildings and things like that,” he added. But it has also become “part and parcel of the populist right.”

French argued against abandoning it. “You don’t want to sacrifice the historic meaning of the flag to modern radicalism,” he said.

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Peter Meijer — a former Republican House member from Michigan who voted to impeach Trump after Jan. 6 — made a similar case. “The folks on Jan. 6 did not give this thing meaning,” he told NOTUS. They were instead “trying to give their present movement legitimacy by reaching back and connecting it to a historical trend.”

But it seems impossible to ignore the new connotation of the symbol.

Meijer suggested Republican lawmakers who don’t agree with the far right use of the flag could better communicate why they’re displaying it. GOP officials, he said, should be “clear about what you believe and what you don’t believe and also don’t sort of wink and nod to try to appeal to all people.”

Instead of squirming in their seats and avoiding questions about whether they will accept the results of the upcoming presidential election, for example — as some high-profile Republicans have in recent news interviews — they should “just say yes or no.”

Sure, Meijer acknowledged, accepting the election results is a hypothetical question, and nobody knows the exact future circumstances when they’re answering it. But there’s an easy response: “‘I have every expectation of certifying the election because I think the peaceful transfer of power is important.’”

“Say something like that,” Meijer told NOTUS. If Biden “mobilizes the National Guard to shut down polling locations in Texas and Oklahoma, you said, ‘Every expectation,’ right? You weren’t expecting that to happen,” he said.

Bacon, the Nebraska Republican, said some party leaders fear confronting their base on issues like this one.

“We’ve allowed the Steve Bannon wing of the party to be very vocal, and a lot of our party leaders have tried to accommodate or placate,” Bacon said. “They go under the radar, they don’t want to make enemies. And I think it’s not helpful. We’ve got to stand up for what we believe and push back on these things.”

Haley Byrd Wilt is a reporter at NOTUS.