The cardigan clad Mister Rogers was the staple American family man, the dad of a nation, seemingly hand picked out of the fifties to talk to children across television screens for over forty years–never without a cable knit cardigan. The aesthetic of Mister Rogers conjures up nostalgia for simpler times. It’s easy to equate his message of kindness and love with that of childhood fantasy. Call him an idealist, or a fruity, free-loving hippie ahead of his time; maybe you’ve even diagnosed him with Peter Pan syndrome yourself. That all may be true, that is, if you haven’t really paid attention to his show and you don’t really know what happened in the 1960s.
When Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood premiered in 1968, America was deeply divided and coping with violence. It was the year that saw the assinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy. The country was polarized by the Vietnam War. Racial tensions were high. Constituents were disillusioned by their government. Richard Nixon won the presidential election, proclaiming himself the champion of the “silent majority.” Sound familiar?
“It’s striking how our country is at a very similar place as we were in 1968 when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood launched. Then, as now, civil discourse was rare, racial tensions were fraught, and political tribes were deeply divided,” writes reverend and author Christine Chakoian. “Those of us who lived through that era remember how shocking it felt to witness unmitigated bullying and unconstrained coarseness flagrantly used to fan the flames of division. It feels eerily similar today. Into that world stepped Fred Rogers.”
Mister Rogers’ kind demeanor, soft spoken delivery, and all-around gentleness were necessary for the world he lived in, and the topics he intended to cover for an audience of toddlers and elementary schoolers. While Americans were disillusioned by their government, he was disillusioned by children’s television programming. The slapstick comedy and gimmicks disappointed Rogers, and he knew children deserved better.
“I got into television because I hated it so,” he told Jeff Greenfield in an interview with CNN. “And I thought … there’s some way of using this fabulous instrument to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen.”
But Rogers’ goal was never to be a television icon, let alone to work in the entertainment business at all. While Mister Rogers is a household name, his lesser known title is Reverend Fred McFeely Rogers.
Photo from Fred Rogers’ high school yearbook
Rogers graduated from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and became a Presbyterian minister in 1963, after which he enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Child Development. That’s where he met child psychologist Margaret McFarland, who he would work with over the next 30 years in the creation of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
McFarland taught him the principles of childhood development. While Rogers served as executive producer, writing every word of every show, McFarland consulted every script and song until her death in 1988.
Grounded in a solid understanding of child development, Rogers knew how to tackle difficult topics of the times in a way children could digest. The first episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood discussed the Vietnam War. Later episodes would tackle more personal issues like divorce, the death of a family pet, moving to a new school, and more. Days after Senator Kennedy’s assination, he addressed it in a special segment.
Rogers never told children what to do or how to feel, but simply let them know it was okay to have feelings about what was happening around them, giving them the tools to express complex emotions. Even after his show wrapped on August 1, 2001, Rogers went back on the air to address the nation and his now grown-up audience after 9/11.
“I know how hard it is some days to look with hope and confidence at the years ahead. But I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were much younger: I like you just the way you are,” he said in one video. “And what’s more, I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe. And to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods.”
As he’s well-known for saying, Rogers words were a reminder to “look for the helpers” in dark times, and to lend a hand when you can. It’s easy to say Rogers’ ideology operates on the Golden Rule: treat others the way you want to be treated. But even that motivation, kindness in return for kindness, is too selfish an agenda for a man of Rogers’ ethos. Kindness with nothing expected in return, kindness even extended to one’s greatest enemy, is more in line with Rogers’ teachings. These are also the teachings of Jesus.
The tenets of Chrisianity abound in the world of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In a famous episode, Rogers asks African American actor François Clemmons (Officer Clemmons) to join him in sitting by his backyard pool to cool their feet, sharing his towel, too.
“I like you just the way you are,” Rogers told Clemmons.
“My being on the program was a statement for Fred,” Clemmons said in the 2018 documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
This wasn’t just groundbreaking during a time of racial segregation. Clemmons was also secretly gay, something Rogers encouraged him to keep private because he feared conservative sponsors wouldn’t continue to support a show featuring an openly gay man.
“Eventually Fred came around to it,” his wife Joanne said in the documentary. “I think François just came a little too soon, maybe.”
Clemmons still describes his relationship with Rogers as incredibly close, calling him his “surrogate father.”
“On the show, he would say ‘I love you the way you are.’ One day I said, ‘Fred, were you talking to me?’ He looked at me and he said, ‘Yes, I’ve been talking to you for two years and you finally heard me today,’” Clemmons recalled, “and I just collapsed into his arms. I started crying. That’s when I knew I loved him.”
The pair’s famous swimming pool scene is also widely considered a reference to the biblical story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, humbling himself by serving his followers. In the same spirit, Rogers shares his wading pool, showing that God’s love extends to all.
“Fred did not overtly quote from Scripture, but he conveyed Jesus’ teaching in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways,” Chakoian explained. “He enthusiastically welcomed the little children (Matthew 19:14). He taught forgiveness, of oneself, of one’s debtors and of one’s enemies (John 8:11; Matthew 6:12; Matthew 5:33-34). And every time Fred Rogers sang, ‘Won’t you be my neighbor,’ he embodied Christ’s command to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Matthew 19:19).”
When asked who inspired his life’s work, Rogers credited his Pittsburgh Seminary professor William Orr for helping him discover his calling. Rogers and his wife visited him weekly at his nursing home, and he once recalled asking his former professor, “What is that one thing that would wipe out evil?”
“Dr. Orr said, ‘Evil simply disintegrates in the presence of forgiveness. When you look with accusing eyes at your neighbor, that is what evil would want, because the more [Satan] can spread the accusing spirit, the greater evil spreads. On the other hand, if you can look with the eyes of the Advocate on your neighbor, those are the eyes of Jesus.’ I’ve never forgotten that,” Rogers said.
For Rogers, the camera was his pulpit and his congregation was made up of children. He called the space between the television screen and a child’s eyes holy ground, and treated it as such. Before filming each episode he prayed, “Dear God, let some word that is heard this day be Yours.”
Despite the important influence of faith in his life and work, Rogers never explicitly mentioned his beliefs or status as a minister in The Neighborhood.
“He wanted to be inclusive, and there are many, many people you would exclude if you start mentioning one God, one faith,” Joanne explained in a recent interview. “I think that he acted his faith, always, as much as he possibly could.”
“His Christianity was this kind of wide-open Christianity that was accepting thinking from all other places, while never departing from the Christian faith,” biographer Maxwell King explained. “Fred’s theology was ‘love your neighbor and love yourself.’ And he saw that communication as the most deeply spiritual thing that he could be doing.”
“He didn’t wear a collar, he wore a sweater. And he preached in that context more effective than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Rogers’ friend Rev. George Wirth said. “Because it wasn’t a sermon like an oratorical thing. It was a communication right into their hearts.”
Amongst his message of neighborly love, Rogers emphasized the importance of self-love, too. Rogers operated on the radical idea that every human being has inherent value on the basis that they exist, something he received his fair share of criticism for, but never backed down from.
“There is continuity that goes through the generations,” Rogers wrote in his book, You Are Special. “There has never been a time in our history when there have been so many changes. But we all have different gifts and different ways of saying to the world who we are. The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling they are worthwhile.”
In an age when participation trophies are scoffed at and hands-on parents are shunned for over-comforting their kids, creating a generation of so-called “snowflakes,” the ministry of Mister Rogers sings a different tune: You are special. If Christians are to believe what is written in the Bible, then we must accept we are all children of God, made uniquely in His image. Even if each of us is but a speck on the vast face of the earth, in God’s eyes, we are indeed very special. And we are all called to acknowledge the specialness in each other, building the kind of neighborhood around us Mister Rogers imagined: one of kindness, equality, acceptance and above all, love.
The documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is streaming on Amazon Prime’s HBO subscription. The upcoming biopic on Rogers’ life starring Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, comes out in theatres November 22.