A Book Talk on Heathen: Religion and Race in American History
If an 18th-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.
Kathryn Gin Lum is associate professor in the Religious Studies Department, in collaboration with the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford. She is also associate professor, by courtesy, of history in affiliation with American studies and Asian American studies. Her teaching and research focus on the lived ramifications of religious beliefs; she specializes in the history of religion and race in America.
Her most recent book, Heathen: Religion and Race in American History (Harvard University Press, 2022), looks at how the figure of the “heathen” in need of salvation underlies American conceptions of race. Her previous book, Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2014), asks how widespread belief in hell influenced Americans’ perceptions of themselves and the rest of the world in the first century of nationhood. She is also co-editor (with Paul Harvey) of The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Race in American History (Oxford University Press, 2018).
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- Program in Asian American Studies
- Effron Center for the Study of America
- Asian American Studies Faculty-Graduate Reading Group
- Center for Collaborative History
- Center for the Study of Religion