cover image Heathen: Religion and Race in American History

Heathen: Religion and Race in American History

Kathryn Gin Lum. Harvard Univ., $35 (368p) ISBN 978-0-674-97677-1

The concept of the heathen “stem[s] from Americans’ conviction that other people need to be transformed” and undergirds “a White American Christian superiority complex,” according to this nuanced and illuminating study from Stanford University religious studies professor Gin Lum (Damned Nation). In a series of detailed case studies, Gin Lum emphasizes the malleability of the term and examines how it enfolds religious and racial differences from a presumed norm of Christian whiteness. By categorizing Native Americans, Africans, and Asians as “heathens,” Gin Lum explains, white Protestants attributed these groups’ alleged technological and social backwardness to their spiritual failings and justified war, slavery, and colonization as means to salvation. In the book’s most intriguing sections, Gin Lum spotlights artists and activists, including Yankton Sioux author Zitkála-Šá (1876–1938) and Martinican poet and politician Aimé Césaire (1913–2008), who refashioned “heathen” from an insult into an assertion of anti-imperial pride. 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. (May)