Looking Back to Bellamy: American Political Theology for a New Gilded Age
Willi, Nora Lee
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Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward depicts twenty-first century America as a socialist utopia, having achieved the full nationalization of industry and commerce, the elimination of the monetary system as we know it, and an absolute equality of income for all. The novel’s themes of economic justice resonated strongly with readers amid the labor struggles of the Gilded Age, making it a best-seller in its time and inspiring a powerful political response. This study frames that response as a “secular revival” by contextualizing Bellamy’s narrative within deep traditions of American politics and theology. It traces the roots of his progressive vision back to a post-millennial eschatology that interprets history as a temporal advancement toward the realization of the kingdom of heaven on earth. Bellamy translates this narrative of divine redemption into one of moral and scientific progress toward a more perfect realization of the nation’s spiritual and secular ideals. Drawing connections between his theological universalism and his political utopianism, this study interprets utopia, generically, as a symbol of eschatological expectation representing a desire for personal redemption projected outward onto the social scene. Bellamy’s utopia, as a symbol of expectation, represents a public call for the fulfillment of the ethical ideal of American democracy as he understands it. His work played an important role during the era of social and political reform that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, by providing creative momentum and direction to industrial labor’s ongoing struggle against the consolidation of wealth and power. As the plutocratic threat rears its head once more in the contemporary era, this study advises that a successful political opposition must recover the utopian attitude of thinkers like Edward Bellamy. The point is to engage historically significant narratives alongside current conversations about economic inequality and capitalist exploitation, and in company with those regarding systemic and intersectional oppressions based on race, gender, sexual identity, disability, etc., in order to extend the intellectual roots of counter-hegemonic ideologies into familiar traditions, allowing them to be more easily recognized and engaged with by popular audiences.