The Pine Tree flag: How one symbol at the Capitol riot connects far-right extremism to Christianity

By Ishaan Jhaveri

At the Save America Rally on Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C., a white flag printed with a bright green pine tree, reading the words, “An Appeal to Heaven,” flew alongside popular right-wing flags. In the crowds of thousands, flags such the yellow Gadsden (“Don’t Tread on Me”) and the Revolutionary War-era Betsy Ross flag (a symbol that has been used in racist contexts) stood out amidst scores of Trump 2020 and traditional American flags.

Source: Nina Berman

But the Pine Tree flag had particular significance at the Capitol riots. According to the book, “The American Flag: An Encyclopedia of the Stars and Stripes in U.S. History, Culture, and Law,” it was an early Revolutionary War era battle flag that took the phrase, “An Appeal to Heaven,” from John Locke’s arguments against the divine right of kings. Back then, the flag was meant to symbolize the right of armed revolution in the face of tyranny. The book, “Standards and Colors of the American Revolution” reports that it was flown by a small squadron of warships under George Washington’s command.

As of 2013, though, the flag was adopted as the emblem of South Carolina-based preacher Dutch Sheets’ Christian initiative aimed at “gathering a network of fellow believers serving Christ in public office” across the U.S. The initiative is aptly named, “An Appeal to Heaven.” Sheets also published a book with the same title and travels all over the country promoting his movement, posting daily prayer sessions to his more than two hundred thousand followers on YouTube. According to Baylor University communications professor, Leslie Hahner, the “Appeal to Heaven” movement’s tenets contain overtones of both Christian Nationalism and Christian Dominionism.

“Christian Nationalism,” she explained, “is a set of ideological beliefs expressed by [some] white, evangelical Christians. Their beliefs champion the U.S. as a Christian nation, as one that is ordained by God. It’s often connected to, if not an outright embodiment of, ideologies of white supremacy.”

Sheets and his supporters are concerned with spreading their ideology among elected representatives across the country. In October 2020, Sheets tweeted a picture of himself with the Pine Tree flag at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, where he was “decreeing America’s reset.”

Source: Twitter

Hahner notes that, “Christian Dominionism is a set of beliefs and practices [that] often manifest through a smaller sect of white, evangelical Christians and some sections of Catholicism.” According to Hahner, followers of Christian Dominionism, many of whom are supporters of former Pres. Trump, believe that “God gave [them] the [United States]…and that God’s battle with Satan is currently playing out in the arena of politics and elsewhere.” In that way, she says, “Dominionism suggests that white supremacy manifests through God’s hand.”

Sheets’s supporters photographing themselves with the flag outside the Missouri State Capitol. Source: Twitter

Sheets’ “Appeal to Heaven” movement is but one example of a marked rise in Christian Nationalism in the U.S., according to both experts in the field and my research for the Tow Center’s VizPol tool. The tool helps journalists identify unfamiliar political symbols, their contexts and their associations, particularly at protests. I co-wrote an article about the symbols and flags present at the U.S. Capitol riots on Jan. 6 — and their meanings — using the VizPol tool. In the analysis of the day, we found that several other symbols, including those with secessionist, Norse, and neo-Confederate connotations, evoked the sentiment that participants saw themselves as waging an all-out war. In their storming of the Capitol, rioters seemed to believe that they were preserving their white supremacist version of the United States. Similarly, bearers of the Pine Tree flag at the “Save America” rally seemed to be attempting to further their own Christian Nationalist agenda. Taken in this light, the Pine Tree flag can be seen as a symbol of the fight to elevate the influence of biblical law in American society.

According to Hahner, the Pine Tree flag is also flown by eco-fascists and tech accelerationists, but in a different context than that of Christian Nationalists and Christian Dominionists. Further, the Pine Tree flag associated with Christian Nationalism shouldn’t be confused with the Revolutionary War Era Bunker Hill flag. This flag also contains a pine tree and was flown at the Capitol insurrection, but its meaning differs from that of the “Appeal to Heaven” iteration.

In an article about violent Christian Nationalism on display at the storming of the Capitol, Jack Jenkins wrote that the Pine Tree flag “has become a banner for Christian Nationalism.” Quoting Andrew Whitehead, a sociology professor at Indiana University, Jenkins said that the sentiment represented by the flag (a call to revolution) is common in evangelical circles:

“‘Christian Nationalism really tends to draw on kind of an Old Testament narrative, a kind of blood purity and violence where the Christian nation needs to be defended against the outsiders,’” Whitehead said. “‘It really is identity-based and tribal, where there’s an us-versus-them.’”

While Sheets’ movement and its appropriation of the Pine Tree flag are tied to both extreme political arms of Christianity, Christian Nationalism differs from Christian Dominionism in a few key ways. For one, according to Prof. Hahner of Baylor, the dominionist movement in its current form only became popular recently. “Nationalism is more mainstream, while Dominionism is the deeper belief. Some aspects of Dominionism hold that demons are literally embodying the U.S. left, and that there is a holy war that the right must engage. So, Dominionism and Nationalism have become an à la carte menu that circulates and props up oppressive and genocidal beliefs,” Hahner said.

In an article the day before the Capitol riots, Bellingcat argued that the lines between various far-right movements, including QAnon, the Proud Boys, general Trump supporters, and explicitly neo-Nazi groups were blurring. They reported that the movements were coalescing together into a united front by examining the increasing incidence of neo-Nazi symbols among political demonstrations in D.C. leading up to Jan 6th. The events were organized by far-right groups who have historically been less associated with neo-Nazism. In a similar vein, it is worth examining where else the Pine Tree flag has been used.

Flags and symbols like the Pine Tree flag aren’t always used in uniform or straightforward ways. And as Christian Nationalism is more mainstream than Christian Dominionism, some might use the flag that is associated with the dominionist movement without knowingly subscribing to deeper dominionist beliefs. But before its appearance at the riots and storming of the Capitol in January, the flag has been known to be used by religious conservatives in the Republican Party.

After attending the “Save America” rally on Jan. 6, a Republican state senator from Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, released a Facebook Live video speaking in front of the Pine Tree flag. It appears behind him in an interview with conservative television network Newsmax (Newsmax repeatedly promoted baseless claims about voter fraud in the 2020 Presidential Election). The cover photo of his self-described personal Facebook page is also the Pine Tree flag.

Source: Facebook
Source: Facebook

Masitrano has a history of pushing legislation with ties to religious beliefs. He co-introduced a “heartbeat bill” in Pennsylvania (which would make abortion upon detection of a fetal heartbeak illegal) along with a fellow Republican in the state legislature, Rep. Stephanie Borowicz. Her Facebook cover photo is a picture of the same flag flying in the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Source: Facebook

The flag was flown over the Illinois State Capitol in March 2019 to promote an upcoming “National Day of Prayer,” a seemingly government-sponsored religious activity (first signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1988). Illinois Republican state representative Chris Miller was photographed alongside it at the same event. Miller is the husband of Mary Miller, a recently elected Illinois congresswoman who courted controversy this year for making a speech in which she invoked Adolf Hitler.

Arkansas Republican state senator Jason Rapert is also frequently photographed with the flag. Rapert is the founder and president of the Christian ministry, Holy Ghost Ministries, and of the conservative group, National Association of Christian Lawmakers, whose stated aims are to, “bring lawmakers together in support of clear biblical principles.” He often adds the hashtag #AppealToHeaven to his social media posts, like in this homophobic tweet aimed at Pete Buttigieg. In 2019, Rapert was a guest speaker at one of Dutch Sheets’ “Appeal to Heaven” conferences.

Source: Holy Ghost Ministries Website

Former Pres. Trump has been associated with the flag, too. At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in 2017, it was seen flying behind him during a speech. Sheets noticed and celebrated this on Twitter. In October 2020, Trump attended a service at the International Church of Las Vegas, where pastor Marc Goulet unveiled the flag while making a speech praising Trump and his policies. Trump later tweeted the moment.

Source: Internet Archive

Goulet’s gesture was then trumpeted by Joey Gibson, founder of the far-right group, Patriot Prayer, which often collaborates with the Proud Boys in the Pacific Northwest. In the post, Gibson dissects the political significance of the Pine Tree flag being presented at a Christian pro-Trump event.

Source: Twitter

But the use of the flag as a political symbol of Christianity isn’t limited to elected officials. In 2015, it was flown outside the U.S. Supreme Court at a rally organized by conservative groups attempting to stop the court from legalizing same-sex marriage.

Source: Tweet by Steven Holtze, president of the Conservative Republicans of Texas PAC

In 2016, it appeared during a deadly standoff in Oregon, when armed militias and other anti-government activists occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for weeks. When one of the group’s leaders, Ammon Bundy, was charged with felonies related to the standoff, his supporters gathered outside the federal courthouse in Portland, Pine Tree flags in tow. Portland-based Photographer David Krug tweeted at least two instances of the flag at the Bundy trial protest. (Bundy was later acquitted.)

Source: David Krug, Twitter

Last year, at least one person carried it at a Jan. 20 Richmond gun rights rally at the Virginia State Capitol building, which an estimated twenty-two thousand people attended. It was also present at the very first anti-lockdown protest on April 15 in Lansing, Michigan, where about a dozen heavily armed members of the Michigan Liberty Militia also showed up. The flag was spotted at subsequent anti-lockdown protests throughout the country.

The flag has also cropped up at neo-fascist events. In October of last year, extremism researcher JJ MacNab noted that it was flown by a member of the Proud Boys at a Proud Boys rally in Ohio.

Source: JJ MacNab, Twitter

The flag crops up in Christian circles other than Sheets’ “Appeal to Heaven” movement, too. It was seen flying at the National Mall at an October anti-lockdown “Worship Protest,” which called for the reopening of churches.

In 2021, four days before the events at the Capitol, the flag was prominently featured at an “Appeal to Heaven” rally in Greenville, South Carolina. Speakers and protestors had gathered to advance Christian interests and representation in politics. The tone was openly Christian Nationalist, with one speaker declaring that “we have designed [the United States] after [God]”.

Source: Fox Carolina News, Facebook

On Jan. 5 at Freedom Plaza, the day before the deadly events at the Capitol, it was flown conspicuously behind the stage where various speakers had gathered for a pro-Trump rally and set of speeches.

Source: Aaron Rupar, Twitter

The flag continued to show up even after the Capitol riots. On Jan. 15, Barrett Gay, an independent journalist who reports on fascism, tweeted photos of members of the neo-Nazi group, NSC-131, showing off a stolen riot helmet decorated with two flags: a parody of an antifascist flag and the Pine Tree flag.

Source: Barrett Gay, Twitter

It’s impossible to know whether all of the above uses of this flag were explicitly intended to be in support of Christian Nationalism or Christian Dominionism. But given its association with Sheets’ overtly Christian Nationalist and Christian Dominionist “Appeal to Heaven” movement, its presence at the Christian Nationalist “Appeal to Heaven” rally in Greenville, and its abundance at the Capitol insurrection amidst many believers of Christian Nationalism, clearly the flag has some association with these movements. And instances of elected officials who pursue a conservative religious agenda such as Pennsylvania state senator Doug Mastriano peddling the flag bolsters this association.

With this in mind, it is particularly illuminating to see the Christian-associated Pine Tree flag at events across the far-right and neo-fascist political spectrums. The presence of this flag at far-right demonstrations, as well as alongside certain members of the Republican Party (at least one of whom, Arkansas state senator Jason Rapert, openly associates with the “Appeal to Heaven” preacher Dutch Sheets) is a sign that Christian Nationalists and Christian Dominionists might have allies across the gamut of far-right-wing politics. This idea has been proposed by several outlets in the aftermath of the Capitol riots. And though in these contexts it could be less of a symbol of Christian Nationalism and more of an expression of the fight to preserve these movements’ conception of America (like other Revolutionary War era symbols were), the prevalence of the Pine Tree flag could be viewed as a dog-whistle signaling kinship between these far-right and white supremacist movements and the Christian Nationalist and Christian Dominionist movements.

Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

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