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  • Religion and Resistance in Appalachia: Faith and the Fight against Mountain-top Removal Coal Mining by Joseph D. Witt
  • Joseph Super
Religion and Resistance in Appalachia: Faith and the Fight against Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining. By Joseph D. Witt. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016. Pp. 284.)

The Trump administration's recent repeal of certain regulations on coal-mine runoff highlights new deregulation efforts. Discussions on extractive industry policies usually combine economic and political arguments. In Religion and Resistance, Joseph Witt explores the faith-based underpinnings of mountaintop removal coal-mining opposition. Broadly defining "religion," the book examines the ways in which Judeo-Christian and nature-venerating faith traditions specifically shape anti–mountaintop removal (MTR) activism in Appalachia and generally raise questions of identity and place in the region.

Dr. Witt's first direct experiences of the sacralization of the anti-MTR movement occurred in 2009, when he attended the Marsh Fork Elementary School rally in Sundial, West Virginia. The passion and arguments he witnessed, from both sides, led him to conclude that "conflicts over mountaintop removal are not simply about the practice itself, but also about much broader dynamics and processes" (6). While not all aspects of the larger movement are religious, he quickly noted an overtly faith-based bent in the rhetoric of many leading figures and organizations in Appalachia.

His first chapter outlines the historiographical context. Anti–MTR efforts are part of a continuum of direct social activism extending back to the Civil Rights Movement. In the last decade of the twentieth century, various local groups emerged and formed flexible coalitions aimed at unifying and organizing communities to find solutions for the problems of poverty, property, and identity that centered around mountaintop removal. Because religion has long played a critical role in how Appalachians understand their world, Witt concluded that no study of mountaintop removal activism would be complete "without considering religion in the fabric of resistance and place-making" (35–38, 57).

Chapters 2 through 4 offer in-depth discussions of three major religious influences. The first examined is eco-justice, which is concerned with the social effects of environmental policy. Hailing predominately from mainline denominations, these activists believe the most significant problem of mountaintop removal is the continued exploitation of the poor, which, they argue, [End Page 195] is antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. The second predominately Christian wing is Creation Care. This includes some leading evangelicals and is more theocentric. While still concerned with humanitarian concerns, Creation Care highlights portions of the Bible that teach the earth itself belongs to God and as such people have a responsibility to care for it, just as they care for each other. Finally, Witt discusses biocentric groups that are not rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. These advocates see an inherent value in the earth not connected to humanity or any deity. While not opposed to religion, they utilize those ideas about the sacredness of earth and the interdependence of all things, which they enhance with scientific findings.

The conclusion offers an assessment of the state of anti–MTR activism. He reminds readers that, despite the overlap in concern, there are notable differences that produce points of friction, "where activists made decisions on argument and tactics, accepting some and rejecting others" (197). Disagreements are rooted in differences of religion and location. Disputes arise between activists from Appalachia and those from outside, even those who share similar religious beliefs.

These evaluations highlight the larger analysis of religion and place. A master of the multiple historiographies involved, Witt recognizes the centrality of place and identity to the discussion of religion and mountaintop removal in Appalachia. His work is among the few that link religion and environmentalism. His firsthand experiences and interviews prove that such connections arise organically within local communities precisely because faith entails community and these particular communities are set within a unique environment. He understands the historical importance of both religion and mountains to Appalachians, but resists the temptation to oversimplify and generalize. Appalachians are diverse, as are their faiths, but the common thread among them is the mountains. That bond means that environmental policy in the region will always involve more than economics...


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pp. 195-196
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