- Religion and Resistance in Appalachia: Faith and the Fight Against Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining by Joseph D. Witt
This volume is a welcome addition to the growing body of scholarship on grassroots opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. Drawing on interviews with regional activists, Joseph D. Witt uncovers a range of religious outlooks that intermingled with activists' sense of place and understanding of nature at the height of a revitalized, direct-action movement against surface mining between 2005 and 2015. Activists' decisions to organize were informed by Catholic, mainline Protestant, and evangelical traditions as well as by modern scientific and countercultural thought. In the midst of these campaigns, activists applied religious frameworks to develop organizational strategies and to respond to regional residents who supported mountaintop removal. What makes this study so fascinating is how Witt takes a "'lived religion'" approach to examining these beliefs, meaning, he considers "how boundaries between religions remain permeable" (p. 50). Activists' views existed in dialogue with each other, just as they existed alongside other regional residents' conceptions of place, identity, community, and environmental stewardship. Hence, the religious beliefs that informed anti–mountaintop removal activism often overlapped or existed in creative tension with each other, fostering "new perspectives and directions" within the movement (p. 197).
Witt identifies three dominant religious frameworks that informed the resistance: the evangelical notion of "Creation Care," the Catholic and mainline Protestant emphasis on social justice, and "earth-venerating or 'dark green' spirituality" (p. 13). The Creation Care movement emerged out of a document that leaders of the Evangelical Environmental Network drafted in 1994. Regional activists applied this national movement's central tenet: that people are called to be good stewards of God's creation. They believed that environmental degradation reflected humanity's sinful nature, and they often described coming to environmentalism as akin to being "born again" and grounded their opposition to mountaintop removal in scripture (p. 104). Many Catholics and mainline Protestants espoused "eco-justice" perspectives that led them to critique not just mining but also economic and political structures that existed primarily "for the economic gain of a privileged few" (p. 62). Witt's treatment [End Page 232] of dark green or "biocentric" or "ecocentric" outlooks among activists is especially intriguing (p. 250n3). Individuals harboring these views understood humans and nature as interdependent, rejecting hierarchical views of humans as caretakers of the natural world. They based their activism on feelings of kinship with the environment, combining "spiritual" insights with scientific understandings of nature and ritualized "direct action and community organizing" (p. 168).
One of the most valuable aspects of this work is how Witt employs Anna Tsing's concept of "points of 'friction'" that exist within grassroots movements (p. 13). Activists may have shared the common goal of ending mountaintop removal, but they viewed that goal through many different lenses. Witt demonstrates that anti–mountaintop removal activists sometimes had competing ideas about resistance strategies and issues like coal's future, who should be involved with the movement, and what roles natives and non-natives should play. He contends that these perspectives led activists to adopt elements of each other's religious views. For example, evangelical activists may have developed feelings of kinship with nature like those who espoused dark green beliefs. At times, points of friction presented obstacles for activists but occasionally "led to new, hybridized religious and ethical perspectives" that informed strategy (p. 198). These exchanges also contributed to a new articulation of place among activists that emphasized the regional environment's intrinsic and spiritual, rather than purely economic, value.
Throughout his chapters, Witt readily engages with debates in religious studies, helping readers become acquainted with major questions in the field, including what constitutes a religion—particularly relating to the less clearly defined set of dark green beliefs that were so common among anti–mountaintop removal activists. Witt acknowledges that he does not devote much attention to how...