Thursday, February 2, 2012

Stephen Leacock and George Grant: Faith and Politics by Ron Dart

Stephen Leacock was perhaps the greatest English Canadian intellectual of his generation.
Damien-Claude Belanger

George Grant was Canada’s most significant public philosopher.  Graeme Nicholson

Stephen Leacock (1869-1944) and George Grant (1918-1988) were men of deep religious faith and passionate about politics. Both men were firmly rooted and grounded in the Anglican tradition, were committed to the classical Canadian conservative political vision and were prominent professors at public universities and in public life. These men did not retreat into private institutions to protect a fragile faith that could not stand up to the challenges of serious and substantive intellectual thought.

 Leacock and Grant were classical Canadian Anglican conservatives. They could be called High or Red Tories. Both were suspicious of the USA at the level of philosophic principle and imperial ambitions. Both men were critical of the dogma of free trade and were at the forefront of opposing closer ties with the USA at economic, cultural, military, religious, philosophic and political levels. Both men held high the importance of a strong centralized state and the role of higher taxes to distribute wealth in a meaningful and just manner. These men were not liberals of an economic and religious sort that waved the flag of liberty, individualism, equality and choice as do most protestants. Leacock and Grant understood the older roots of fragmentation and schism. 

Leacock and Grant, in short, sought to conserve an older tradition than the protestant, Calvinist, puritan and liberal way that emerged in the 16th century and came to dominate the American landscape with the coming of the puritan pilgrims to Plymouth Rock in 1620. Such a tradition highlighted such principles as liberty, conscience, equality and individuality. The State was seen as suspect and the protestant work ethic held high. The Bible was, in principle, the formal authority, but the real authority were the rights of individuals, in good conscience, being equal, to interpret the Bible as they saw fit: liberty demanded as much. The birth of liberalism can be located in the 16th century, and we, in our ethos, are merely picking the late autumn fruit from such a tree. The hot button issues might be different, but the principles remain the same. Leacock and Grant saw this most clearly, hence their distrust of the varied and fragmentary forms of Protestantism that can be found in the low and broad church forms of Anglicanism.

There is a question we might ponder by way of conclusion. How is the High Tory Anglican tradition of Leacock-Grant different from the conservatism of Prime Minister Harper? It might be more honest to call Harper’s conservatism a form of American republicanism. This is what the older Toryism of Leacock-Grant saw through, opposed and resisted. It is ironic that the very language that once opposed Canadian integration into the American way is now used to justify it. Orwell would do more than smile. 

We err seriously when we ignore the intellectual and religious giants that have gone before us. They still have much to teach us about thinking, faith and politics if we have but the ears to hear.  

Ron Dart  

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