Heathen. Religion and Race in American History

Gin Lum, Kathryn
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349 S.
€ 31,50
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Alexander Obermüller, Historisches Seminar, Universität Erfurt

In Heathen. Religion and Race in American History religious studies scholar Kathryn Gin Lum focuses on the heathen as a politically influential concept that does a lot of work due to its elasticity. Heathen lumps together various peoples in a derogatory fashion, establishing them as supposedly inferior while positioning Christians as superior. Aside from this negative work, heathenism also allows White Protestant Americans to feel saved simply because they are not heathens.1 Gin Lum emphasizes that „the activation of their [Protestants’] own humanity and sense of superiority relies on the existence of ‚degraded’ and ‚wretched’ heathens for them to feel pity over and save“ (p. 15). She also shows how those declared to be heathens could adopt the label or resist it. Invoking W.E.B. Du Bois’ work, Gin Lum explains that her book „gazes at the ‚souls of white folk,‘ looking at how their gaze on so-called heathens reveals the constructed nature of their own sense of superiority“ (p. 17).

As Gin Lum’s title suggests her book is about the intertwined relationship between religion and race in discourses on heathenism. Neither can religion and race be neatly separated, nor is the former replaced by the latter as some scholars suggest. Heathenism, a profoundly racialized notion of supposed religious errancy, does not disappear or give way to scientific racism, Gin Lum argues. Contrary to this widely articulated „replacement narrative“, the author shows that heathenism remains a powerful concept well into the twentieth century (p. 11). Her study adds to research on race, specifically Whiteness, and religion and draws from and contributes to scholarship on White Christian nationalism, humanitarianism, and US imperialism. For Gin Lum, Whiteness is „a fragile religio-racial claim continually articulated with and against the figure of the heathen“ (p. 18). This conception of the heathen makes Gin Lum’s work new and exciting.

Heathen is based on various sources including magazines and newspapers, memoirs, missionary pamphlets, poetry, travel literature, and religious tracts. Among the latter Gin Lum includes multiple accounts by female actors such as Betsey Stockton (p. 102), Emma Pitman (p. 103), and Kate C. Bushnell (p. 116). Using these accounts, Gin Lum teases out female missionaries’ specific roles and sheds light on their perception of female heathens (p. 106). By offering careful readings of engravings, illustrations, and sketches that accompany her book, Gin Lum underscores how heathenism manifested in visual media and how those depicted could defy the colonizing gaze (pp. 187, 217, 228). Her readings of landscapes and their role within heathenism are particularly convincing (pp. 83, 88, 94).

Gin Lum starts her three-part study by looking back at the creation of the heathen in the Greco-Roman world and its role in the formation of Christianity. She then addresses key tenants of heathenism aside from different religious practices. White Protestant Americans saw heathens as inefficient land users, inept in technological questions, and immovably stuck in the past. They also failed at providing care for the elderly and poor and were themselves in need of aid and constant guidance. The latter came to bear in the nineteenth century, „a century that saw the spread of scientific racism.“ Gin Lum shows that „the older, broader category of ‚heathen‘ nevertheless retained a powerful salience rooted in ideas about bodies ravaged by misguided beliefs – bodies that needed the oversight of Protestants in order to be saved from themselves and each other“ (p. 98).

In the second part, Gin Lum returns to case studies from part one e.g. Hawai’i to show how heathens could be included into or excluded from the United States body politic. Using her key metaphor – the heathen barometer (p. 130) – she shows how heathens’ supposed characteristics were measured and then discarded depending on the young nation’s needs. The pressure that Chinese laborers exerted on the body politic registered differently than that of Filipinos or Hawaiians. On domestic soil, the threat that unsaved souls posed to White Protestant supremacy warranted harsher exclusion (p. 166), whereas the imperialist hunger for land and resources allowed for more leniency toward the heathen overseas. Yet, those declared to be heathens, like Confucian missionary Wong Chin Foo, appropriated the heathen barometer to gauge the extent to which White Protestant Americans had strayed from their own religio-moral teachings. Deference to capitalism, which contemporaries likened to idolatry, and the lack of compassion for fellow White Protestant Americans led Wong to embrace his own heathenness (p. 174). Gin Lum’s capacious understanding of heathenism becomes especially useful when she unearths such counter scripts. True to her claim that heathenism is not exclusively steeped in anti-Blackness (p. 15), Gin Lum attends to other forms of racialization aimed at Japanese, First Nations, and Hawaiians. Her portrayal of the creative ways that convert Uchimura Kanzō (p. 125), activist and writer Zitkála-Šá (p. 214), and activist-scholar Haunani-Kay Trask (p. 270) used the heathen label is particularly convincing. These actors turned heathenism on its head, deployed powerful counter scripts, and directed the heathen barometer against White Protestant Americans.

The book’s final part takes heathenism into the twentieth century. Threats to the body politic that appeared so urgent in the nineteenth century abated and many Protestants’ more liberal stances toward other religions and a shift in missionary work from religious salvation to the immediate aid for suffering bodies, facilitated this process (p. 208). Yet the rhetorical downsizing that put Christendom into a soft-spoken paternalistic relationship with „ethnic religions“ did not replace the heathen (p. 201). Nostalgia for ostensibly disappearing religious groups did trigger White Protestant Americans’ preservationist efforts – mostly to save their own sense of history, bolster their claims to superiority, or for their entertainment (p. 199) – and conservative Evangelicals still try to convert heathens, now addressed as „the unreached“.

Gin Lum establishes that heathenism retained a certain degree of flexibility. Muslims for example slipped out of the heathen category only to be included on different occasions (p. 25). In White Protestant Americans’ eyes, heathen characteristics such as inefficient land use and worship of ancestors, nature, or multiple deities, landed First Nations, Hindus, and other groups more squarely in the heathen category. Yet Gin Lum also argues that some Protestants grouped Catholic immigrants into the heathen camp due to their insufficient distance to Greco-Roman idol worship. Here heathenism seems to work somewhat differently. The charge of heathenism rendered „judgement on their [Catholics’] supposed religious abnormalities in order to racialize their Whiteness as suspect“ (p. 146). Gin Lum appears to suggest that German, many of whom were Protestants, and Irish immigrants’ Whiteness was precarious due to their Catholicism. Yet even if rhetorically denigrated as heathens, Catholics could count on not being impeded by the heathen ladder’s glass ceiling (pp. 11, 156), since they still hailed from Europe.

By excavating the heathen, an ostensibly „antiquated figure and a primarily religious one whose significance has fallen as other categories of difference […] have risen“ (p. 1) for contemporary analysis, Gin Lum contributes to the ongoing debate on the role that race plays within religion and vice versa. Countering the replacement-narrative, Gin Lum reminds us that „different kinds of racial thinking coexisted and interacted, and we fail to capture the full range of othering in which Americans engaged if we assume that one (hereditable, biological othering) overtook and eventually replaced another (religious changeability)“ (p. 80). Her book provides an engaging experience for readers interested in anti-colonialism, Chinese exclusion, Hawaiian history, missionaries, and racialization. It will enrich classes in history and religious studies.

1 I stick to Gin Lum’s use of capitalizing White, her reasons can be found on p. ix.

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