The Gentle Power of Mr. Rogers

This 4th of July, I needed to be reminded of what America can be at its best. So I watched the new documentary on Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? It’s a surprisingly terrific film: creative, inspiring, moving, surprising, and thought-provoking. Perhaps most refreshingly, it doesn’t shy away from the role of Christianity in the life of a Presbyterian minister who was ordained (so one colleague says early on) as “an evangelist to television.”

Indeed, it’s hard not to come away from Won’t You Be My Neighbor? understanding why Rogers “seemed almost like a second Christ” to one of his sons. It’s the first of several such allusions in the movie. “What would Fred Rogers do?”, director Morgan Neville asks his interviewees as he seeks guidance (in as non-partisan a manner as possible) for an audience navigating the Age of Trump. Good grief, there’s even a clip of Mr. Rogers literally washing and drying the feet of his pioneering African American cast mate François (“Officer”) Clemmons. A gay man who spent the run of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in the closet, Clemmons breaks down as he realizes that Rogers had told him thousands of times, “I love you” — and meant every one.

Now, Rogers also insisted that Clemmons hide his sexuality for fear of losing advertisers. But the overall portrait is one of such enormous integrity, virtue, and love that it’s astonishing to learn (from Rogers’ widow) that as he neared his death in 2003, Mr. Rogers genuinely wondered if God would judge him among the goats, rather than the sheep.

If anyone meets the standard Jesus describes in Matthew 25, it’s Fred Rogers, who welcomed stranger after stranger after stranger over his decades of ministry. In The Pietist Option, I ask, “what is the fall but this: created for relationship, we were made strangers to our Creator and to each other? Because of sin, we are prone to see God and everyone made in his image with fear and suspicion rather than awe and wonder.” No one seems to have been better at recognizing and wondering at the awesome image of God in other people — especially, but not only, children — than Fred Rogers. Few have done more to love strangers into a sense of, well, neighborhood.

No, he was not a “second Christ.” No one is. But those of us who follow Jesus can be formed, through the Holy Spirit, in ways that make our hearts, minds, and behavior more Christ-like. Paul’s “fruit of the Spirit” give a good way of measuring such formation, and that list came back to mind yesterday: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). When I first wrote about Mr. Rogers six years ago, I focused on love. But now I‘m equally struck by another of those fruit: gentleness.

We’re in a moment when Americans obsess about civility. Some of us bemoan its loss. Others warn that it is used to suppress the angry voices of the oppressed. I do think that civility is essential to the functioning of a civil society, but the civitate Dei demands more than civilitas. Not just tolerance of divergent opinions, but love of those holding them. Not just politeness, but gentleness.

The easiest thing about being a Christian in the Age of Trump is to rediscover the Christ who overturned tables in the Temple. There is no doubt a place for such anger, and the film interestingly probes Rogers’ difficulty in showing an emotion that, when it was expressed at all, came out chiefly through his piano and puppets. But Christians of all political stripes are too happy to deem their own anger righteous — and to judge their opponents’ anger to be the kind that Paul decried among other “works of the flesh.” It’s far harder to take on Jesus’ yoke and learn from him, for you’ll find that he is “gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:29).

Do we want such rest, for ourselves or for others? Do we actually want to be gentle?

Fred Rogers
Mister Rogers, in the late 1960s – Wikimedia

Perhaps because we still hear it as “meekness,” I suspect that we dismiss gentleness as a form of weakness. We don’t realize the strength of will and conviction required to behave gently and patiently with others. We don’t realize the courage it took for him to be so open (“scarily open” we hear in the film) to listening calmly to others.

Or perhaps we do realize those things, and just can’t face them.

There were limits to the effectiveness of Rogers’ gentle approach. The film reveals that he often doubted that his work made any difference. Never more so than after 9/11, when one colleague says that he was shaken by the enduring power of evil. God knows what he would make of American politics, culture, and society in 2018.

And yet I think we have much to learn from Fred Rogers. His gentleness sometimes made him the object of ridicule — and prompted questions about his masculinity (as the film briefly explores). Yet like Paul, Mr. Rogers was an evangelist who did not

seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others… But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. (1 Thess 2:6-8)