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The radical - but gentle - faith of Mister Rogers

By: Tyler Huckabee, The Washington Post
February 2, 2018 Updated: February 2, 2018 at 12:48 pm
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Fred Rogers tapes a public service announcement in front of the neighborhood trolley at Idlewild Park in Ligonier, Pa., Aug. 8, 2000. The 71-year-old host of PBS' "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" taped his last show Dec. 1 in Pittsburgh, more than 30 years after he first went on the air. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Americans seem to love sharing myths about Fred Rogers, the friendly neighbor known the world over as Mister Rogers. Consider the one that he wore cardigans to cover his tattoos (false). Or the one that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister.

That one is true - he graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1963 - and it's far more foundational to Rogers' legacy than you might think. Rogers was defined by his Christian faith, and the message that he taught every day on his beloved children's show was shaped by it.

"If Protestants had saints," Jonathan Merritt wrote in The Atlantic, "Mister Rogers might already have been canonized."

The news that Tom Hanks will portray Rogers in a coming biopic was met with glee, as Hanks is one of the few contemporary celebrities who approaches Rogers' universally beloved status. But even Hanks, for all his charms, doesn't occupy the same stratosphere as Rogers' legacy of moral and spiritual importance.

Rogers was a pastor on television in the golden era of televangelism. But unlike televangelists, Rogers' focus wasn't on eternal life, but on our interior lives. As evangelists made a name for themselves preaching about mankind's wickedness, Rogers was interested in his viewers' inherent value and worth. Evangelists found ways the human race didn't measure up to God's moral standard. But Rogers said again and again: "You've made this day a special day by just your being you. There is no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are."

If this sounds like the sort of shallow talking point espoused by the likes of Joel Osteen, consider these words: "Love isn't a perfect state of caring," Rogers wrote in "The World According to Mister Rogers."

"It's an active noun like 'struggle.' To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now."

Rogers didn't tell children they were perfect, just that he loved them no matter who they were.

"I think everybody longs to be loved and longs to know that he or she is lovable," he said in the 2003 documentary "America's Favorite Neighbor."

"And consequently, the greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they're loved and capable of loving."

Rogers echoed the sentiment of the biblical passage 1 John 4:10, "This is love: Not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." The focus is not only how important it is that you're loved, but also how vital it is to be loving.

Rogers' theological messages could be traced to the biblical notion of "neighbor" and Jesus' parable about the good Samaritan. As Jesus tells it, a Jewish man was mugged and left for dead, and his body was ignored by the religious elite who passed by. But then a man from the despised country of Samaria stopped and showed kindness. This was Jesus' roundabout way of answering the question, "Who is my neighbor?"

Jesus' point - that the Samaritan and the Jewish man were spiritual neighbors, if not physical ones - feels right at home on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," where Rogers greeted you with a daily "Hi, neighbor!" as if the whole world lived in the same close-knit community.

It might be tempting to think Mister Rogers' message came from a simpler time, but his show made its debut just a few months after the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, and the world remained on tenterhooks. Rogers' message upended a few apple carts in his own time, and it remains countercultural today.

The notion of a worldwide neighborhood in which everyone belongs has been replaced by a call for isolationism. Rogers was aware of our propensity to oust people. An early episode of his show featured King Friday, trying to build a wall around his Neighborhood of Make-Believe to protect it from change. Sound familiar?

Perhaps Rogers' gentle, accepting theology is all well and good for children, but adults do not have the luxury of unconditional love and acceptance. You can feel this sentiment in Family Research Council President Tony Perkins' Politico interview, where he hedged Jesus' language about turning the other cheek. "You know, you only have two cheeks," he said. "Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on." Jesus' teaching is a nice idea, Perkins seems to be saying. But it's just not realistic.

Rogers thought the act of loving and accepting someone as your neighbor was holy business, as he said in a 2001 commencement address at Middlebury College: "When we look for what's best in the person we happen to be with at the moment, we're doing what God does; so in appreciating our neighbor, we're participating in something truly sacred."

It may sound old-fashioned, but Mister Rogers' theology was radical in 1962, and it remains radical today. That's why it resonated. That's why it's still necessary.

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