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If "Heathen" Sounds Outdated, Historian Kathryn Gim Lum Says it Still Explains Racism in America

The story of the "heathen," writes Stanford religious studies professor Kathryn Gin Lum, in her new book, "Heathen: Religion and Race in American History," is a familiar one. It's a story "about how Americans have set themselves apart from a world of sufferers, as a superior people and a humanitarian people — a people who deserve the good fortune they have received and have a responsibility to spread it to others." 

The necessary center of that story is the idea of "the heathen": whether in its historical sense of people holding the "wrong religion" or its contemporary incarnation as a pitiable "third world" other, but always a figure in need of transformation and salvation. Under the supposedly beneficent mission of offering that salvation, Gin Lum writes, the concept has served as a wide-ranging "get out of jail free ticket" that "renders any harm excusable if done in the name of eradicating wrong religion." 

"Heathen" is 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. In some ways, Gin Lum notes, the idea of heathenism is a large part of the origin story of the American concept of race.


Gin Lum spoke with Salon this June. 

Could you talk about what inspired this book? 

There's both a personal and an academic story to where the book came from. From a personal standpoint, I'm the daughter of Chinese immigrants and I grew up in a conservative religious tradition, with the belief that people from China who did not receive the gospel were heathens. So I grew up believing that if I hadn't been so lucky to be born in the U.S., to a Christian family, I would have been in "heathen China" and bound for hell. 

I wrote my first book about hell, so you could say I've been grappling with questions about hell and the heathen for a long time. I write in the book that as a child, I could have been a primary source for myself as a historian now. As an adult, I could be a primary source for myself because the people I write about are trying to grapple with these things continually, as I still am. So I guess you could say this book is the attempt of a historian to understand myself and my people — people understood to be heathens in the history of this country. 

From an academic standpoint, I was writing an undergrad thesis 20-something years ago on admission to Gold Rush-era California and looking at missionaries to the Chinese immigrant population and to the Euro-American population. I was struck by how much the Chinese were constantly referred to as heathens. Then I came across this 19th-century missionary map of the world that color-coded the world by religion, and was struck by how much of the world was colored gray for "heathen." On one hand, it's this term applied to the Chinese population, but on the other hand, it incorporates the vast majority of the world. I was really interested in what it is about this category that is so capacious and also so politically useful

Read entire article at Slate