Justice Alito’s Appeal to Heaven

The Democrats are up in arms over a sage of the Supreme Court flying on his dock the flag that George Washington flew from his cruisers.

Via Wikimedia Commons
The Pine Tree Flag, at upper left, in 'The Growth of Our National Flag,' an illustration from a 19th-century textbook. Via Wikimedia Commons

The denunciations of Justice Samuel Alito are growing ever more shrill on Capitol Hill. The latest is from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, demanding “active investigations” over flags that have appeared on the justice’s properties. A “fundamental challenge to our democracy,” she calls it. She refers to photos showing, on the justice’s dock, the Revolutionary-era Pine Tree Flag, with its message “An Appeal to Heaven.”

God save these United States, we say. The display of the vintage banner, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez avers, means the justice “has identified himself with the same people who raided the Capitol on January 6.” She’s a summa cum laude graduate of Crabbed and Bitter University. The flag has such a glorious provenance that it’s hard to know where to begin. A quick internet search discloses references going back to George Washington and, further, John Locke.

The Times contends that the 18th-century pennant “largely fell into obscurity until recent years” but now serves as “a symbol of support” for President Trump and his claims of election fraud, plus a “push to remake American government in Christian terms.” The flag — which is also displayed outside Speaker Johnson’s office, according to Rolling Stone — is a signifier “that leads into a universe of right-wing religious extremism,” the magazine says. 

Humbug. It was George Washington who, in October 1775, urged the adoption of a naval flag so “the vessels may know one another.” The design he suggested, historian John Fowler observes, was “a white ground, a tree in the middle,” and the phrase “An Appeal to Heaven” on it. The Marine Corps in 1942 noted that, during the Revolutionary War, the symbol “became familiar on the seas as the ensign of Washington’s cruisers.”

The banner’s ties to American naval history could well have been the impetus for Justice Alito to display it on the Atlantic shore. As for the flag’s ties to a so-called “Christian nationalist” movement, as Rolling Stone labels it, we’ve yet to see evidence that its leaders or followers have a monopoly on the imagery of the Revolutionary War era — or appeals to God. Religious fervor, after all, helped animate the settling of America and our revolution.

Nor is it clear, at first glance, that there is anything sinister about efforts by any group of religious believers — including judges — to advocate for their beliefs in the political marketplace. That, after all, is one reason why the First Amendment bars any “law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” — to prevent interference by the government with Americans’s religious liberty and free speech.

As for January 6, many banners were waved that day, including, these columns have noted, the ensign of Free Vietnam. That flag, three red stripes over yellow ground, is flown among Vietnamese-Americans as a reminder of the South’s heroic fight for freedom against the North’s communist dictatorship. It’s not our intention to gloss over the violence of that day. January 6 doesn’t preclude Americans’s recourse to prayer and appeals to heaven.

The discovery of Mr. Alito’s Pine Tree Flag follows acrimony last week over the upside-down Old Glory that briefly appeared on Justice Alito’s lawn. Neither of the flags, though, offered as strident or explicit a political message as did, say, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s criticism of Mr. Trump. Nor do the flags appear to surmount Justice Alito’s obligations to hear cases — what Chief Justice Rehnquist called the “duty to sit.”

More troubling than any flag-waving is the sense that Democrats are attempting to subvert the legitimacy of the Supreme Court via increasingly petty intrusions into the justices’s private lives. The goal is to undermine the court’s conservative majority by other means. Say what you will about Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, but she doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to her intention to tilt the high court: “When Democrats have power, we have to use it.”

The New York Sun

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