Thursday, September 03, 2015

In Praise of Fred Rogers

A county clerk down in Kentucky, Kim Davis, is refusing to do her job, getting herself thrown in jail for contempt, and posing as a martyr. Once again, an extremist and divisive version of Christianity, obsessed with minor points of doctrine and followed by only a minority of Christians, is presented to the American public as "Christianity." This is nonsense, of course. Only a tiny, tiny minority of Christians believe that handing same-sex couples a wedding license is somehow sinful. And disapproval of homosexuality is an incredibly minor Christian doctrine which some theologians exclude altogether, while on the other hand not setting yourself up as judge over your neighbors is a core Christian belief. I could go on, but then we'd be talking about Kim Davis instead of actual Christianity, which is just what Kim Davis wants.

I'd like to talk about a positive example instead: a genuinely devout Christian who spent decades in the public spotlight and did nothing but good there, who never turned his faith into a weapon of division but used it, day after day, to welcome and include all comers. I am talking, of course, about Mr. Rogers.

Or rather, I am talking about the Reverend Fred Rogers, ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1963. Rogers was, according to virtually everyone who knew him, a deeply committed believer. But he never preached on Sundays. The TV show was his ministry. Let me go further: it appears that the seminary that ordained him considered the TV show his ministry. Fred Rogers was, as Brother Elwood puts it, on a mission from God.

But you won't see or hear any explicit Christian symbolism on Mister Rogers's Neighborhood. It's not there. And I don't mean it's cleverly disguised, either. That was not Fred Rogers's game. The Kingdom of Make-Believe isn't some C. S. Lewis feed-the-children-Jesus-when-they're-not-looking propaganda. King Friday XIII is not God, X the Owl is not Jesus, and Donkey Hote is not the Holy Ghost. When Mr. Rogers feeds the fish, he's not doing some Christian fish symbolism. He's just feeding some fish. There is nothing sectarian in Mister Rogers's Neighborhood. There is nothing exclusively Christian about it, nothing aimed at one religious group and absolutely nothing aimed at converting or indoctrinating Fred's audience of impressionable preschoolers. This was by design. Terry Gross, of NPR's Fresh Air, once asked Fred why there wasn't any Christian symbolism in the Kingdom of Make-Believe. Fred answered, simply and directly, that he never wanted any child to feel excluded in the Kingdom of Make-Believe.

But not being sectarian or exclusionary does not mean that Mr. Rogers's Neighborhood was not Christian. Remember, the people who ordained Fred a minister explicitly told him that his show was his ministry. Fred's refusal to exclude children or insist on any doctrinal labels was part of the show's Christian mission. He did without the superficial religious symbols in service of a deeper Christianity.

Where was the religious content, then? Everywhere. And I mean that. Almost every syllable spoken on that show came from Fred Rogers's religious convictions. (Everything that he did or said on the air was deliberate and purposeful. Every show is a meticulously crafted and executed lesson.) The core message that Fred made sure to include in every single show, more than once, was the Christian message of universal, unconditional love: "I like you just the way you are." The central lesson, every day, was that the children watching were people deserving of love. Fred didn't talk about being Christian. He made himself an example of Christian love.

Now, you don't have to be Christian to entertain the idea of every individual's fundamental worth and dignity. There are secular versions of that. But the idea that every human is unconditionally worthy of love is both at the very heart of Christianity and broadly palatable to non-Christians. Nearly every religious tradition includes a mix of core ideas that are nonetheless widely attractive to outsiders and more peripheral beliefs that often serve to define sectarian boundaries. Most people can get on board with Talmudic teachings on justice and integrity. Most people are not eager to embrace the "can't touch the light switch on Friday nights" rule. "Love thy neighbor" is a big, ecumenical hit. "Stained glass windows are sinful idolatry" is, more or less by its nature, designed to divide and exclude.

The two kinds of religious teachings do very different things. There are a set of moral and philosophical positions, which offer believers guidance in the big questions. And there are a set of generally minor and sometimes even peculiar doctrines that serve to mark group identity and form community. "How do we live a just life?" is an essentially but not exclusively Jewish question. "Is it okay to eat milk and meat together?" is a question about whether you're Jewish. Religious groups focused on conflict with outsiders tend to focus on these relatively peripheral, sect-specific positions (or put another way, sects focused on peripheral doctrines tend to focus on conflict with outsiders). During the heyday of Christian-vs-Christian religious violence in Europe, back in the 16th and 17th centuries, the stained-glass-or-no-stained-glass question was treated as crucial, with love-thy-neighbor and thou-shalt-not-kill taking distant back seats.

Mr. Rogers's Neighborhood was all core principles and no checkpoint shibboleths. Fred was not interested in sectarian identity, because universal love has no room for Us vs. Them. He never talked the talk. He unrelentingly walked the walk. He did not preach lessons. He provided an example, and in doing so proved truly exemplary. 

Although he became a cultural touchstone, Fred Rogers's message was deeply counter-cultural. Our society, although superficially and nominally Christian, has a deep emphasis on teaching children to compete, to earn their parents' approval and too often their parents' love. Our children are bombarded throughout their childhood with messages about winners and losers. (Even the self-esteem movement, widely derided for not teaching children to compete enough, accepts the winners-and-losers premise, destructively telling children that they are all winners rather than pointing to a value system beyond winning.) There's no room in that for I like you just the way you are, but Fred Rogers insisted on that room. He made space for that message where there had been none. The only shame was that when students grew out the the pre-kindergarten age on which Fred focused, there weren't equally powerful voices communicating that message to first graders and up.

And part of Fred's greatness as a teacher (and make no mistake, Fred Rogers was a great master teacher) was his deep and evident humility. Humility is another central Christian virtue that doesn't get much attention or love in our nominally Christian country, but Fred embodied it. Listen to him singing on the show. He's obviously not a professional singer. He doesn't have a "good," i.e. media-ready singing voice. He'd get cut immediately on American Idol (a show obsessed with competition to the point of, what's that word, idolatry). But singing well is not the point. Fred is not embarrassed, and you aren't embarrassed for him, because his ego has nothing to do with it. He doesn't care whether or not his voice is good or bad. Singing is just something that helps his lesson, and so he does it, with the impeccable confidence of the utterly humble. That humility was part of his educational genius, because it meant that nothing was ever about Fred. It was always about the student learning.

What matters to Fred is not the technical polish of his singing, but the connection he makes with the kids. Singing is a way to make himself more emotionally present to them, to connect. And the very fact that he's singing in such an unpretentious way underscores that he is opening himself up to the kids, creating intimacy and trust. He is telling them that he won't laugh at them because he knows they won't laugh at him. (Ask yourself this: who do YOU feel comfortable singing in front of? See what I mean?) And the singing, which starts every single show, communicates something essential about the value system: it's not important to show off. You don't sing to impress other people, let alone to show who is a better singer. You sing to people as a way to connect with them. We are a country of showing off for the neighbors. Fred Rogers made every lesson about loving the neighbors, in every sense of that word.

Fred Rogers bore witness to his Christian beliefs every time he stepped in front of a camera. His Christianity was always inclusive and never divisive. It's humbling to watch, because I will never be that good a teacher or nearly that good a Christian. But being humbled is part of the point.

cross-posted from, and comments welcome at, Dagblog


Contingent Cassandra said...

Amen. I suspect that Rogers' ministerial credentials may have helped convince my mother (who was generally suspicious of TV for children) to let us watch the show (but she stood firm on a maximum of one hour of TV a day, so we watched all of Mr. Rogers and half of Sesame Street).

I've been relieved to hear Kim Davis identified by denomination, not just as "a Christian." that seems like a positive step in the direction of understanding, and accurately reflecting, Christian diversity. (I'm not sure whether the other members of her denomination feel the same way, however; while I'm happy to share a denominational label with Fred Rogers, I'm not so happy to share an avowed connection to the Calvinist tradition with another Fred, Fred Phelps).

I've also been distressed to see some fellow Christians throwing stones, in the form of comments about her marital history, at Davis. I disagree (very strongly) with her on multiple counts, but I don't think mocking her is Christian behavior. Better to praise an alternative model, as you have done here. Thank you.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Thanks, CC. Sorry you missed the second half of Sesame Street.

I agree with you about the personal attacks on Davis. They're not Christian but also, to be all secular about it, a prime example of the ad hominem fallacy.

I'm not a big fan of the hypocrisy argument. The issue isn't Davis's personal character, because I'm not looking for a more virtuous bigot. What Davis proposes is wrong on its own merits and would be wrong no matter who proposed it.