An innovative history that shows how the religious idea of the heathen in need of salvation undergirds American conceptions of race.
If an eighteenth-century parson told you that the difference between “civilization and heathenism is sky-high and star-far,” the words would hardly come as a shock. But that statement was written by an American missionary in 1971. In a sweeping historical narrative, Kathryn Gin Lum shows how the idea of the heathen has been maintained from the colonial era to the present in religious and secular discourses—discourses, specifically, of race.
Americans long viewed the world as a realm of suffering heathens whose lands and lives needed their intervention to flourish. The term “heathen” fell out of common use by the early 1900s, leading some to imagine that racial categories had replaced religious differences. But the ideas underlying the figure of the heathen did not disappear. Americans still treat large swaths of the world as “other” due to their assumed need for conversion to American ways. Purported heathens have also contributed to the ongoing significance of the concept, promoting solidarity through their opposition to white American Christianity. Gin Lum looks to figures like Chinese American activist Wong Chin Foo and Ihanktonwan Dakota writer Zitkála-Šá, who proudly claimed the label of “heathen” for themselves.
Race continues to operate as a heathen inheritance in the United States, animating Americans’ sense of being a world apart from an undifferentiated mass of needy, suffering peoples. Heathen thus reveals a key source of American exceptionalism and a prism through which Americans have defined themselves as a progressive and humanitarian nation even as supposed heathens have drawn on the same to counter this national myth.
A fascinating book...Gin Lum suggests that, in many times and places, the divide between Christian and 'heathen' was the central divide in American life. -- Kelefa Sanneh * New Yorker * Offers a dazzling range of examples to substantiate its thesis. Rare is the reader who could dip into it without becoming much better informed on a great many topics historical, literary, and religious. So many of Gin Lum's examples are enlightening and informative in their own right. -- Philip Jenkins * Christian Century * Nuanced and illuminating...Ranging from King Philip's War in 17th-century New England to 'anti-Asian hate' during the Covid-19 pandemic, Gin Lum sheds light on a troubling yet overlooked aspect of U.S. religious history and issues a powerful call for change. Readers will gain new insight into the roots of 'White Protestant American' exceptionalism. * Publishers Weekly * Brilliant...Gin Lum's writing style is nuanced, clear, detailed yet expansive, and accessible, which will make the book a fit for both graduate and undergraduate classrooms. Any scholar of American history should have a copy. -- Emily Suzanne Clark * S-USIH: Society for U.S. Intellectual History * Heathen is a rare intellectual achievement of discernment, analysis, and clarity. By interpreting the cultural dimensions of race and religion in America through the prism of heathen identity, Gin Lum refracts a visage of fraught history to reveal colors of truth that disturb and inform with lightning courage. This is transformative scholarship at its best. -- Sylvester A. Johnson, author of African American Religions, 1500-2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom This brilliant book definitively refutes the idea that race simply replaced religion as modernity's primary marker for difference. Gin Lum shows how the concept of heathenism continues to inform American attitudes about race and the global other-and how those marked as heathens have spoken back to shape a more just world. Along the way, she challenges both historians and religion scholars to see their work anew. -- Tisa Wenger, author of Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal A fascinating topic has found the ideal author. Heathen is an absolute pleasure to read-the prose fluid and crystalline, the argument nuanced and sophisticated. Gin Lum demonstrates how important 'heathen' was over centuries for the mental and moral coordinates of Anglo-American Protestants' imaginations. She makes the compelling claim that even when the term fell out of favor, the images of otherness it expressed did not; 'the heathen world' became reenvisioned as 'third world' and 'developing world,' perpetuating a divided, racialized world view. -- Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, author of The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History A striking, persuasive account of the enduring power of the concept of 'the heathen world.' With impressive research and incisive analysis, Gin Lum shows how white Americans' application of a 'heathen barometer' indelibly shaped American race-making and reveals the vigorous responses from groups racialized as heathens. This vividly written book is essential reading for anyone interested in religion and race. -- Judith Weisenfeld, author of New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration A sweeping history of the origins, development, and applications of the concept of heathenism as a way of constructing and maintaining White supremacy from the early modern period to the present. Heathen offers a clear, compelling argument defended with extensive evidence from an impressive range of sources. A particular strength is the analysis of 'counterscripts' that resist the dominant racial narrative and reveal the stakes of this crucial historical work. -- Heather D. Curtis, author of Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid A story about religion but also about race, colonialism, empire and identity-particularly American identity. The concept of heathenism was used to rationalize the slaughter of indigenous people, the burning of 'witches,' the enslavement of Africans, the exclusion of Chinese immigrants, the abduction of Native American children, and the usurpation of U.S. territories' and colonies' right to self-rule. -- Kathryn Joyce * Salon * [Gin Lum] tells a much larger story about the durability of cultural categories, the meaning of history, and the emergence of ideas of about racial difference, which she sees as intertwined with religious difference. As Gin Lum persuasively and provocatively argues in this book, 'racial othering has been a "heathen inheritance."' -- Melissa Borja * Anxious Bench * A must read for anyone doing the work of deconstructing and decolonizing a Christianity known for its name-calling...In brilliant detail, [Gin] Lum shows the historical connection between paganism and Christianity...A timely resource for Christians who are seeking a version of Christianity that does not require cultural assimilation and that does not make excuses for a religion that employed and endorsed race as a means of othering. -- Starlette Thomas * Good Faith Media * Heathen presents the reality of the world we are living in today and the stories that formed it. -- Yanan Rahim Melo * Sojourners * Holds up...a harsh and timely mirror to Christians in the United States. * National Catholic Reporter * Expansive...As much as this book is about the historical underpinnings of religious colonialism, it is also about how the circulation of texts-in the form of ethnographic research, Western classics, religious propaganda, and scripture-give imaginative shape to worlds. -- Joshua E. Livingston * Englewood Review of Books *