Allen Johnson.

As its not-at-all euphemistic name would indicate, mountaintop-removal mining makes no effort to disguise its impact. Coal-mining companies brazenly invade Appalachian communities, blow the tops off mountains, send massive coal trucks careening up and down narrow roads, spew coal dust into the air and mining waste into the water, and terrorize residents who resist. Landscapes are ruined forever — where the mountains are leveled, no biologically diverse forest will grow, no healthy industry will take root. Yet the nightmarish practice goes virtually unnoticed by those outside West Virginia and Kentucky.

Rather than leaving their fate in the hands of mainstream environmentalists, Appalachians are organizing themselves. Exhibit A: Christians for the Mountains, a group of environmental activists reaching out to their fellow citizens via church pulpits. The head of the organization, Rev. Allen Johnson, spoke with me by phone about his frustrations with some evangelical leaders, the scriptural basis for caring for the earth, and why science will eventually triumph.


 

What is your organization, and what are you trying to do?

I had been involved with the religious campaign for forest conservation for a number of years, advocating for national forests and wilderness. But sometimes when you have a national scope, it’s hard to get a handle on local things. Some of the issues in Appalachia needed to be addressed with more of a local focus, so we convened a group of environmental activists who were religious people. The consensus was, let’s have an organization focused on reaching out to churches. So we went with Christians for the Mountains, and put together a tool kit — a DVD on mountaintop removal.

I’ve gotten some criticism: “Why aren’t you interfaith?” We are willing to work interfaith, but if we can speak out of the thrust of who we are, our values, theology, and scripture, we have more impact. If other organizations or religions want to work with us, we’ll work within a partnership.

Do you think Christianity has something unique to offer in this fight? Why not just People for Mountains?

We believe that God made this planet, that God loves the earth, God loves creation, God loves humanity, and that even though God gives us freedom to spin our destiny, God doesn’t want it to be trashed. God can open hearts and change people’s minds and attitudes. There’s an element of hope, I guess.

I love the outdoors. I have a biology degree, and I was going to be a naturalist. But still, the reason I’m involved with this is that I’m a Christian. That’s the driving force for me. God loves me, and therefore I want to give that to others, and to the world.

What would you say to someone from a mining company who said, “I’m a Christian too, and God says we have dominion over the earth — I’m just exercising it”?

We have a tremendous privilege to be here on this earth and have dominion, but that also implies responsibility. My wife and I had dominion over our children. We made the rules in the household. But our role as parents was not to exploit our children. We sacrificed ourselves — our needs, our time, our energy — to raise those children up. We gave of ourselves so that they might grow up. That is dominion, and it’s the same dominion here on earth.

We point to Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. And everything in it.” We say, this is God’s property. He’s saying, you can use it, and it will feed you and take care of your needs. But I’d like you to take care of it, because I have a covenant with future generations. I made these plants and animals, and they have their space too. You can carve out a space for yourself, but leave some room for the others.

Conservative Christians in the South are typically Republican. But most of the people behind lax mining regulations are also Republicans. How does that tension resolve itself?

It’s a tough one. I worked with the Evangelical Environmental Network, one of the four partners in the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, back in ’93, ’94. I had a lot of hope back then. If you could just get the evangelicals to turn around on these issues … But it didn’t seem to be happening until these last two years.

The average guy in the pews is listening to the radio or TV preachers — the Jerry Falwells, the [Pat] Robertsons, the James Kennedys, the [James] Dobsons, the [Chuck] Colsons, on and on. They have this individualist, American, do-what-you-want, frontier mentality. These guys are largely in league with the financial people — the Council for National Policy, if you’ve heard of that.

They don’t want to talk about the Sermon on the Mount. They don’t talk about Jesus’ teachings. They talk about Jesus is going to get you to heaven, but they don’t talk about how you follow him. Jesus says as clearly as can be, you cannot serve God and Mammon simultaneously. Mammon is the pursuit of wealth and money and power.

How can we have a covenant with future generations when we destroy land permanently, which is what’s going on with mountaintop removal? West Virginia has an abundance of fresh water, and we’re going to ruin that by pumping this garbage [mining waste] in the groundwater.

How significant is the current evangelical green turn going to be?

I don’t think it’s down into the pews yet. What it’s going to take is leadership, and right now the preachers, the Colsons and Dobsons, are a couple of generations older. The younger generation, the ones in their 20s and 30s, are getting their information from other guys, and pretty consistently they’re coming out for environmental advocacy.

The thing is, to wait another generation for this to take shape … global climate change can’t wait that long. That issue is the key one. That’s the one rattling the Council for National Policy preachers, because they’re tied to the fossil-fuel folks so closely. They’re false prophets. They’re leading people astray. They could change things around — all they’d have to do is say it: Global climate change is real, folks, we’ve got to do something about it. We talk about being pro-life on abortion. We’ve gotta be pro-life on the environment.

Even though I’m being harsh, I want to believe. This is what prayer is — God moves in people’s hearts. People do change.

The evangelicals will make more difference than the mainline protestants right now, because that’s then going to shift politics, it’s going to shift Karl Rove and Bush. It’s going to rattle them. They’re going to have to respond.

Evangelicals seem to be thawing out on the environmental question, but not on environmentalists. The pagan stereotypes still have a hold. Do you see any movement on that?

I think the younger generation is already, but they don’t have a lot of power. Go to Creation Fest, one of these huge Christian rock festivals. You’ve got people with purple hair and piercings and tattoos. They’re more open to environmentalists.

As far as embracing environmentalists … for a while there I started getting criticism. It’s a bad buzzword. It puts people off. Use “conservationist” or something like that. Instead of environmentalism, use “creation care.”

You know, I’ve been waiting for this time, and in the last couple years things are moving. I don’t know how fast it will break through, and there will be efforts to turn it back. But the Colsons and Dobsons cannot counter the science. They cannot come up with theology to turn it back. You’ve got to take care of this planet. You can’t say otherwise. It won’t fly.