Religion and Resistance in Appalachia
Faith and the Fight against Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining
Joseph Witt’s Religion and Resistance in Appalachia is well written, illuminating, and persuasive on several matters of great importance. A key point is showcasing activism against mountain top removal (MTR) coal mining in Appalachia, as well as how this activism has fed into related activism including the recent protests at Standing Rock. Another point is underlining the fluid range of stances that religious people take in relation to such activism, as well as unpacking the implications for two wider questions: (1) what it means to be evangelical in the US today; and (2) what it means to be part of what is variously conceptualized as neopagan nature spirituality or—a term coined by Witt’s mentor, Bron Taylor—“dark green religion.”
Witt’s extensive, concrete, fair-minded, and subtle exploration—drawing on socio-political and ecological evidence, analysis of religious studies scholarship, interviews, and participant observation—gathers a great deal of useful information about the above issues in one place. Witt sets forth the rise of MTR mining and its political and ecological drawbacks. He describes key actors and protests with special attention to “Mountain Justice” campaigns featuring direct action starting in 2005, including a 2009 West Virginia rally that he attended. In chapters exploring each of Witt’s three major approaches discussed below, he summaries relevant histories, introduces recent actors, relates their work to a wider scholarly literature, and uses fieldwork to flesh out the approaches.
The heart of Witt’s analysis is a distinction between three tendencies in anti-MTR religion: eco-justice approaches centered among mainline Protestants and Catholics, creation care and/or stewardship models centered among moderate evangelicals, and “nature-venerating religion” in forms including neopaganism, Christian creation spirituality, and vernacular Appalachian forms centering on reverence/respect for place. Witt largely conflates these three camps with a related, three-way distinction among approaches that stress human flourishing, theocentrism, and biocentrism. Sometimes this second set of terms seems to be an independent variable, introducing some conceptual slippage, or at least interesting complexity—for example, when certain mainline people fit Witt’s definition of theocentric as much as evangelicals do, or evangelicals care about human justice, and/or people in the biocentric cohort approach from a Christian base and/or share eco-justice priorities.
If I have any concern about Witt’s book, it is that his tripartite scheme—eco-justice approaches based in mainline Christianity, versus creation care and/or theocentric models centered among moderate evangelicals, versus a biocentric veneration of nature—at times comes with a sense of being slightly forced upon the primary evidence. My point is not to question the value of the conceptual model, at least as ideal types to compare, contrast, analyze in their concrete intersections. Nevertheless some of Witt’s arguments about evangelicals strike me as too schematic—since some of people he treats in the evangelical section are primarily eco-justice types based in mainline churches, although they seek to forge alliances with evangelicals. By extension, the argument about creation care evangelicals, at times, seems rather abstract and may overreach—he shows convincingly that this cohort exists with real potential, yet we may need to discount some of the evidence about its activist impact.
Meanwhile, certain people Witt treats in a sort of do-it-yourself nature mystic category seem open to interpretation, nearly as much as evangelicals disaffected from local churches—or at least as Christian secularists—rather than as dark green religionists as usually understood. What happens when the Christian and the dark green—often conceived as opposites—overlap? Witt unlocks a door into this fascinating topic, although he does not follow through systematically.
Thus it is the messiness around the borders of Witt’s categories, more than their clean distinctions, that is most interesting and important about the data Witt assembles. He would likely not disagree, since he repeatedly stresses complexity and writes about activism as a space for cultural encounter. Most of the time Witt keeps all of this in good focus, framing his presentation with religious studies approaches—especially of the “lived religion” variety—anthropological theory, and Appalachian Studies scholarship about place to frame religion as an arena for complex cultural friction and negotiation.
Representing at the same time strength and a limitation to notice, Witt focuses deeply on anti-MTR networks rather than attempting a more systematic and/or diluted study of a wide cross-section of Appalachian religions. As a result, one leaves his book confident about substantial religious opposition to MTR, yet still curious about the roads not taken, and what these might have taught us about an overall balance of power or emergent trends. At times Witt seems to hint, or at least hope, that pro-ecological religion is a growing trend—yet he does not have a strong base of evidence to prove this. Often one senses that, although anti-MTR forces may be growing, they remain a clear minority which, at times, is rather passive. Witt flags standoffishness by many Appalachian locals toward real or supposed “outsiders,” especially from Witt’s biocentric cohort, as well as strong constraints on anti-MTR clergy from locals who control church purse strings. There is room for further studies that would compare a wider range of Appalachian Christians and explore how much overall traction eco-justice and creation care are gaining beyond anti-MTR circles. Likewise, there is room to explore attitudes of “spiritual but not religious” Appalachians who are not part of activist groups. However, let us be clear that that this would be a different book, and by no means necessarily better than the actual book Witt produced.
This book should become an important corrective to a tendency to assume that Christians—in Appalachia and generally—are fairly monolithic and overwhelmingly conservative on issues of ecology and social justice. Equally important, it adds a valuable local study to the growing literature on biocentric or green spirituality. Beyond this, the book is a welcome addition to interdisciplinary literature, especially in Appalachian Studies, about the role of culture in contexts of social conflict. It highlights the multi-layered, fluid, and contested nature of religious practices.
Mark Hulsether is professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee.
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