Henry Smidstra: An interview with Ron Dart
Professor Ron Dart has taught Political Science, Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley, Abbotsford, B.C., since 1990. During that time, he has also authored over 30 books and is renowned as the leading authority on the North American High-Red Tory religio-political tradition. The High Tory tradition is a unique Canadian tradition that is withering away under the domineering trend toward philosophical liberalism.
I have known Ron for many years and have learned much from him. My dialogue with him has motivated me to explore more deeply the political philosophical roots of my own Reformed (CRC) thought and practice. I interviewed Ron on November 17, 2016, over tea in our favourite meeting spot near Abbotsford, B.C.
Henry Smidstra: What motivated you towards your intensive study of the High-Red Tory tradition?
Ron Dart: I grew up as an Anglican in Toronto in an historic Loyalist, Tory environment. With this formative experience, and having ancestral roots in Tory southern England, it was natural for me during my formal education to ponder where American liberalism had come from; whence the fragmentation, of religion, politics and nations. Influenced by reading Richard Hooker and George Grant among others, I was seeking the religious-philosophical pathways of how the West became what it is today, and how that impacted the development of political thought and practice in North America. The 1960s and 1970s in Canada were challenging days of change, yet I was drawn naturally to the pre-modern form of conservatism. Over the years, especially from the mid 1960s. Canada has become increasingly enmeshed, economically, politically and culturally, in modern and post-modern liberal thought.
Wikipedia has identified you as the most important writer of the Red Tory tradition in Canada. What was your goal in your writing?
I regard it a calling; a vocation to help clarify public thought on political-philosophical matters. I feel the need to help tease out the many converging, confusing stands of thought that have come to reside in Canadian political philosophical thought. It’s important to note that High Tory is not to be confused with Red Tory, though there is a close relationship. The Red Tory designation is a late one in history, and reflects the modern tendency to ignore transcendent norms found in Scripture and in classical traditions of the Good. There is a Higher authority for the High Tory than simply modern political science’s partisan logic, or pragmatic, political, economic expedients. I invite my students and readers to ponder the liberal sea in which they are tossed to and fro, and to become grounded in something more eternal; a grounding that seeks the middle way to avoid current populist trends towards tribalism and identity politics.
We should also be reminded that both American and Canadian political traditions are, at the core, all really liberal, so that our Canadian political parties simply manifest different strands of modern liberalism. The question for today’s Blue Tory/conservative is, “what do you want to conserve?” It will likely be 18th century classical liberalism that they want to conserve.
This sounds complex. You have been working with these ideas for many years; why is it important or urgent for the ordinary Canadian Christian to think about politics in this way?
To truly understand Canadian politics we must know the High Tory way. It is important for Canadians to understand how, historically, Canadian politics differ from American Republicanism; Canadian political history is at the core High Tory history. It was the loyalists of the late 18th century relocating to Canada that decisively influenced the nature of Canadian politics. This foundational Canadian Tory thought was in contradistinction to the liberal Whig thought of philosophers such as Locke and Paine that supported the American Revolution. As Canadians we are urged to be knowledgeable of the High Tory strand in Canadian intellectual and political thought, thought that differs fundamentally with the liberal mind established in America.
All Christians are called to thoughtful action based on the higher virtues of faith, hope and love, with a depth of knowledge enriched also by the wisdom of pre-modern traditions. We are called to live out our faith in public political life; this is amplified by the words of John Milton, “I cannot praise a cloistered faith that never sallies forth.” Today we are daily bombarded by partisan political rhetoric in a culture steeped in liberal modernism’s self-interested notion of freedom and possessive individualism. We are all called to avoid uncritical assimilation into the popular liberal mind of our times in order to truly be a positive, collaborative, transformative presence.
Modern partisan politics is detached from life and there is much despair in our culture, as well as silly optimism. We are called to a higher way, a way that serves to address the need of the common good. In our secular culture, we need to be knowledgeable, able and ready to speak from a higher plane, with God first, to transcend crass tribalism, and resist being polarized by partisan rhetoric. Creatively, in faith and love, we can act as “gadflies” as it were, to stimulate positive action. I rely on my sure faith to keep me going in hope; I act on that which I believe.
Where do we begin; and how should we, the average Christian, start?
We must begin by learning to think outside the box of liberalism. In chapters 16, 17 and 18 of my latest book, The North American High Tory Tradition, I outline the matrix of liberalism, and Charles Taylor’s version of liberalism. The political left, centre and right today all merely tap into Hegelian liberalism. We begin with understanding the trajectory of modern liberalism which actually has roots in the Reformation. There has been an increasing manner of thinking about freedom-from: beginning with freedom of individual conscience and belief, to declarations of independence, to assertion of the absolute sovereignty of the individual in our post-modern era. Liberalism’s notion of individual freedom, in my opinion, is at the core of much schismatic fracturing even within the Reformed family of churches. Postmodern individual freedom knows of no absolute, nor of direct social, mutual political responsibility. Market forces seem to know best, it is said. This form of liberalism is the dominant zeitgeist which subtly influences us all; and, thus it is important to identify its characteristics, along with discernment of modernism, voluntarism and progressivism. As outlined in the ten-point Tory Manifesto, found at the beginning of the book, I suggest that we regard the state positively – that all social sectors are called to work cooperatively with the state for the common good. The Tory founders of Canada’s federal government designed a strong central government for the common good, not for individualistic, nationalistic or corporate grandiosity. A populist slide such as we are seeing today south of the border would be considered irreverent and anarchic.
To close his Tory Manifesto, Ron writes, “A Tory calls out in the streets to one and all to lift their eyes, hearts and heads to the heavens and truly see what needs to be seen and lived for.”
Ron Dart is a professor in the Department of Political Science, Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C.
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