Fred Rogers, quiet radical: The misunderstood legacy of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood"

Author Michael Long on the iconic television host's unique brand of pacifism and his gradual embrace of LGBT rights

Published July 31, 2015 9:30AM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on Religion Dispatches.

Religion Dispatches Michael Long’s new book, Peaceful Neighbor, dares to place Mister Rogers in his social, historical, and political context.

I say “dares” because this can be more threatening to the reader than she might expect. Not that Long unearths salacious secrets—this isn’t a scandalous tell-all.  But those of us who grew up watching Mister Rogers may discover, in reading Peaceful Neighbor, that we were hoping for a hagiography. Instead, Long offers us moments of Rogers being human—and that includes conflicts with cast members, decisions that were not as prophetic or consistent as one might wish in retrospect, and even some insecurities.

All this from the man who kept blessedly telling kids that they were acceptable just as they were.

Thankfully, the reader winds up getting a lot more than a hagiography. We get Fred Rogers, the ordained minister, whose television persona was built on a scaffold of theological and pastoral conviction. Without that background, it would be easy to imagine that Rogers came across as he did because he just happened to be a peculiarly benevolent person who was very kind in the way someone else might be very tall, or very tone-deaf.  There’s probably some truth to that, but far more interesting are the ways in which Rogers accounted for the kindness he showed people, and wanted them to show each other and themselves.

At points Peaceful Neighbor felt like it was systematizing Rogers’ theology more than Rogers himself did, but that might also be my own bias. Possibly I missed some of the argumentation in Rogers’ quoted words because they were expressed in letters to friends, and not in a theological treatise.  In any case, Long successfully demonstrates that Rogers, who had studied both theology and child development, had put a lot of thought and skill into the things he said to very young children.

Another major aim of the book is to present Rogers as a radical pacifist—not a wimpy milksop, but a man of great and countercultural conviction.

I confess that this got my dander up at first.  I know a lot of white Christian pacifist dudebros who justify their swaggering and mean-spirited braggadocio by saying that they’re “countercultural.” I wasn’t thrilled that they might try to claim Mister Rogers as one of their own.

While I still would love to see that distinction developed further—between Mister Rogers’ “radicalism” and the “radicalism” of the self-styled nonviolent revolutionary hipsters for Jesus (and how the former entails a rejection of male privilege that the latter welcomes)—my beef might be with Rogers and not the book’s author.  Long shows that Rogers himself worried that people might misunderstand his gentleness as wimpiness.  I really would have liked to discover a Fred Rogers that would, upon reading Peaceful Neighbor from his heavenly orange and brown sofa, say something like: “Hey, thanks, but no need to rescue me from criticisms that I’m namby-pamby, or to recast me as more bravely countercultural than people guessed. People who say that are clearly operating out of a restrictive and toxic understanding of masculinity-as-domination that I reject entirely, so who cares about meeting their standards?  Now, let’s watch a lecture by bell hooks on Picture Picture.”

But having read Rogers’ actual words… well, I don’t know.  He may not have gotten there.

Long was kind enough to engage some of these questions over email from Elizabethtown College, where he teaches.  If you’ve not read Peaceful Neighbor, the interview below will give you a sense of Long’s scope and style.  If you have read it, then Long’s responses will likely give you a sense of his own response to discovering a more complex Mister Rogers than the one we probably carry around in our hearts.

SMB: Could you begin by situating the book a bit? As I was reading Peaceful Neighbor, I wondered whether it was part of a wider conversation on nonviolence… or maybe even a not-yet-conversation that needs to become a conversation. In some quarters of American Christianity, the loudest calls for pacifism seem to go hand-in-hand with a kind of macho bravado that can alienate everyone who isn’t a white hetero hipster swaggerer into homebrewing, Crossfit, and Jesus. You seem to be offering a different model here—a Christian pacifist who is neither a conflict-averse fussbudget nor an aggressively overcompensating dudebro. Is that fair?

ML: Yes, that’s fair. The model Rogers offers—one of being peace—is more closely aligned with Zen Buddhism than with the macho form of Christian pacifism that you so accurately identify.

Thich Nhat Hanh once said that marching in the streets does not create peace. And while I don’t agree with him entirely—marchers did a lot to end the Vietnam War—he is right to suggest that peace has its roots in the quiet compassion of the human heart.

Compassion is the adjective Rogers used when asked how he wanted to be remembered, and it is the practice that he tried to instill in his viewers so that they would become peacemakers. So rather than donning cut-off jeans and angrily pumping a peace sign while marching in the streets, he quietly modeled compassion as the antidote to violence, This does not mean he rolled over in a namby-pamby way, as the folk singer Pete Seeger once described him.

Rogers might have sounded and looked wimpy, but he was fiercely dedicated to a pacifism rooted in human dignity for all. The strength of this conviction led him to create a program that sought to undermine an entire society poised to kill. Doing so Rogers felt, as he put it, strong.

I was surprised to learn that, during the first Gulf War, Betty Aberlin and Fred Rogers had a fairly serious dispute over how to make best use of the platform they had to address the peace they both longed for—with Aberlin wanting to take a much more radical stand. Aberlin appealed to her Christian convictions, as Rogers elsewhere did to his. Was that a big surprise to you as well? 

The dispute between Aberlin and Rogers did not surprise me too much. These two forceful personalities were stylistically different. Aberlin was a street protestor, and Rogers was not. He preferred communicating his views in front of a camera and in the quiet of a studio. Rogers was also much more subtle and indirect in his approach than was Aberlin, though I hasten to add the two respected each other.

What are some things that did surprise you?

Perhaps most surprising to me was his suggestion, offered in the late 1960s, that Francois Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons in the Neighborhood, keep his gay sexuality in the closet.

According to Clemmons, if he did not stay in the closet, Rogers would remove him from the show. Hearing that counsel from his mentor was a painful and devastating moment for Clemmons. For me, it was surprising, given Rogers’s beautiful words about liking us just the way we are. But I do want to emphasize that Rogers evolved on this issue and that Clemmons came to feel that Rogers eventually understood Clemmons’s sexuality and that he fully welcomed his gay friends when they visited the set. Rogers also supported his local Presbyterian church’s outreach to the LGBT community.

I was also pleasantly surprised to read letters of protest and dissent written by children viewers of an episode in which Rogers extolled Sea World and its care for the killer whale Shamu, These children had seen the popular movie “Free Willy” and were saddened and disturbed by Mister Rogers’s apparent unwillingness to free Shamu from the confines of the Sea World tank.

The letters are very touching in the care they express for a killer whale in need of the freedom afforded by a vast ocean. They are also moving in the sense that they are the product of Rogers’s own creation—his handwork in encouraging children to express their feelings, including those of anger and disappointment. The letters of dissent penned by children are the powerful products of Rogers’s work in child development.

I’m so glad you mentioned Officer Clemmons. I loved how you made him a three-dimensional character, even as I winced as I read his accounts of how his race and sexuality limited his role in the show. Clemmons mentions that he asked, more than once, to play the male lead opposite Betty Aberlin in the operas put on by the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.  It sounded as though he was… well, I don’t think he said “dismissed,” but the description made it appear that Fred Rogers was dismissive of the idea, which Clemmons interpreted as Rogers’ hesitancy to show an interracial couple. And then in chapter 10 we learn that Rogers told Clemmons that someone had seen him at a gay bar and that, while Rogers personally had no problem with Clemmons being gay, under no conditions could Clemmons come out.  And I guess I want to ask: why? Why did someone who had by then proven he could stand up to politicians, irate viewers, and TV industry people balk at having an out gay man as part of his cast? 

That’s a tough question. Rogers did not allow the politics of his conservative viewers prevent him from developing episodes that were progressive on issues of war, racial justice, feminism, economics, and ecology.

But, according to Francois Clemmons, Rogers was indeed concerned that he would alienate conservative viewers had he addressed the issue of gay liberation on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” So what accounts for the apparent inconsistency, that is, Rogers’s willingness to take on, say, the Vietnam War but not gay liberation? To be honest, I do not know have a definitive answer to offer. Perhaps Rogers did not see the type of core support for gay liberation that he saw for other progressive issues, and so was concerned about being too far ahead on the issue.

But let me stress that this is mere conjecture on my part. This is one of the issues that make me wish he were still around for us to talk with and learn from.

If he were around today, I would ask him about gender identity as well.  I remember his song that went something like “Boys are boys from the beginning / Girls are girls right from the start…” And then later: “Girls grow up to be the mommies / And boys grow up to be the daddies / Everybody’s fancy, everybody’s fine / Your body’s fancy, and so is mine”  So it seems like he was operating with a fairly strict gender binary, though I suppose I need to remember that he didn’t write that song in 2015. To use a ripped-from-the-headlines test case, do you think Rogers would be able to accept and celebrate Caitlyn Jenner for who she is?

My sense is that Rogers had a comparatively fluid notion of gender roles. He was constantly bending gender on his program in the sense that he showed males and females undertaking activities not normally associated with their gender. We can see this especially in his use of the puppet Lady Elaine Fairchilde. “I’m tired of being a lady!” she says at one point, indicating she wants to do work not typically identified as “lady-like.”

And, indeed, throughout the years Lady Elaine Fairchilde takes on roles that had long been identified as for males alone. For example, years before Sally Ride became an astronaut, Lady Elaine flew to Pluto and even discovered Planet Purple along the way. Lady Elaine is one tough puppet!

On a similar note, Rogers often showed himself (as Mister Rogers) doing things not historically associated with his gender. And so we can see early episodes in which he is ironing his clothes, cleaning his house, trying on wigs, and playing with dolls. In addition, Francois Clemmons recalls that Rogers encouraged him to get in touch with the feminine dimension of his personality. According to Clemmons, Rogers even wondered aloud whether wearing women’s clothes might help Clemmons explore his feminine side. So it seems that Rogers was quite progressive on the issues of gender and gender roles.

As I ask these questions, I realize I have two responses to the book. One is: Wow, this is so fascinating because it’s about Fred Rogers yet isn’t a hagiography! How lovely! And the other is: Hey, this is Fred Rogers! I don’t want moral complexity; I want the saint that I have ensconced in a golden halo in my childhood memories. Do you encounter that a lot?

It doesn’t take a great leap to see Rogers as a saint. He was so patient and compassionate and accepting. But Rogers himself was aware that all of us are morally complex, a beautiful combination of saint and sinner. So writing a hagiography would have been a disservice to Rogers’s own acceptance of moral complexity. It also would have been contrary to his fierce commitment to truth-telling in constructive and positive ways.

I understand that some readers will no doubt be troubled by some of the things they learn about Rogers. But if they could keep their own moral complexity in mind, perhaps that will make it easier on them. With that noted, though, I must say that in spite of his own shortcomings Rogers still seems to me to be far more saint than sinner—a compelling model for all of us who lack compassion at points and who fail to accept others just as they are.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Christianity Mr. Rogers Religion Religion Dispatches Vietnam