PEACEFUL NEIGHBOR: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers. By Michael G. Long. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015. Xvii + 203 pages
I was already well into elementary school when Mr. Rogers came on the scene. My morning staple was Captain Kangaroo instead. Nonetheless, over the years I’ve caught snippets of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, which appeared for decades on local PBS stations, offering to America’s children a gentle, sweater-wearing father figure. Compared to its PBS neighbor Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers was pretty low key. Despite the lack of high octane elements, it held the attention of several generations of children.
While I knew that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister who saw his show as an expression of his ministry calling, even if the religious element wasn't explicit, I didn’t realize that his message was rather radical. Not having spent much time watching the show—it’s possible I watched it with my son when he was young, but I remember Thomas the Tank Engine instead (with Ringo and George Carlin as conductors), I didn’t catch his faith-formed message that focused on teaching peace to children.
In Michael Long's book Peaceful Neighbor, we encounter a man who was marked by compassion and a radical commitment to pacifism. Though sharing the message in his gentle, low key manner, never raising his voice, Fred Rogers’s vision for his show focused on sharing his commitment to social justice -- showing us where he put his emphasis and where he shied away from controversy. According to the author, despite the perceptions of some:
This is the Fred Rogers I have come to know: not a namby-pamby, mealy-mouthed, meek and mild pushover, but rather an ambitious, hard-driving, and principled (though imperfect) creator of a progressive children’s program designed to subvert huge parts of the wider society and culture. (P. xiv).
While we may not remember him as a political subversive, using children’s programming to push a liberal political agenda, that may be who he was. Perhaps that gentle demeanor served to lessen the threat to national interests.
So who was this famed man who entered millions of homes over the years, along with King Friday, Lady Aberlin, and Lady Elaine? What were the influences on his life? In part it was family. But among the more important influences was William Orr, one of his seminary professors while at the Presbyterian Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. From Orr he learned of God’s unconditional acceptance of humanity and that Jesus was the advocate of this acceptance. As Long puts it, he took from Orr the concept that God is the “Great Appreciator.” Another important influence was Henri Nouwen, who introduced Rogers to mysticism. While officially Presbyterian, he had a great appreciation for the Quaker tradition. While he embraced this liberal/mystical vision of the Christian faith, he felt a call to work with children during his time in seminary. That sense of call eventuated in his long-running TV show.
The show was launched nationally in 1968 at the very moment that the United States was embroiled in the Vietnam War. It was also a time when the streets of the nation were filled with protesters marching for Civil Rights, an end to the war, and an end to poverty. In many ways the show became his bully pulpit, though he spoke gently and did not carry a big stick either!
Part One of Long’s book, which is composed of six chapters, focuses on the message of peace. The week that the show launched the United States faced was engaged in the Tet Offensive that turned the tide against the South. During that week he shared a story about the importance of making peace, showing what might happen if war came to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. While King Friday sought to militarize the neighborhood, Lady Aberlin sought a way to change the conversation toward peace. Later on he would take on the arms race and showing that war isn’t nice. These shows that took place throughout the years were rooted in his theology of peace, which posited a God of Peace. While he embraced peace he also showed the children that it was okay to get angry. While he was influenced by theology, he also was influenced by Freud’s idea of sublimation, suggesting that one could channel “socially unacceptable instincts or impulses into socially acceptable attitudes and actions” (p. 45). Anger is a natural part of life, but it’s important to learn self-control and alternative ways of dealing with anger.
While the message of peace was central to his message, he was not a one-issue advocate. He was deeply committed to social justice, a commitment rooted in his faith commitment and nurtured by his home church in Pittsburgh, which was one of the most progressive Presbyterian churches in the nation. Therefore, in Part Two, again comprising six chapters, we discover how Rogers's vision of peace played out in other arenas, including race and diversity, hunger, gender stereotypes, homosexuality, animal rights, and ecology. In some areas, such as race, gender stereotypes (he encouraged girls to use hammers and boys to cook), and animal rights (he was a vegetarian) he was explicit in his message. Although supportive of gay rights and willing to hire gays for the show, he refused to speak out on the issue. Indeed, he asked one gay cast member to be careful not to let persons know about his sexual orientation. He was concerned how this issue would play nationally. He was not afraid to address issues of war and violence, but he refrained from giving overt support.
It is obvious from reading the book, which covers the many ways in which Rogers engaged in social justice work and offering a different vision of life for children than they often encountered elsewhere, that Fred Rogers was a complicated person. He was deeply religious, but his frame of reference was a Quaker-influenced liberal Protestantism. Committed to justice and acceptance for all, leading to concern for the smallest of creatures (he was not a Vegan however), with regard to an issue like hunger he was more disposed toward charity than systemic change.
Although not a perfect man, he entered the lives of many children offering them a view of life that was compassionate and life-affirming. While he had his blind spots, his vision was one of radical acceptance and grace. It is a powerful vision that is often absent from other programming. The question is this: to what degree has he influenced the lives and understandings of the children he engaged over the years. Did his message break through all the other messages? If it did, what does this portend for the future? Only time will tell! In the meantime, Michael Long has given us a much fuller picture of Fred Rogers than most of us had prior to the appearance of the book. Were we really aware that such a radical counter cultural figure was entering America’s homes? Did we encourage this message or counteract it? What would the children say?