Let us pause a moment and sing in praise of Fred “Mr.” Rogers. Having now seen the documentary that just came out on his life and his work, I think there can be no hesitation in conferring upon him the mantle of secular sainthood.
What a guy.
Mr. Rogers was a Christian. In fact, he was an ordained minister. But he didn’t talk much about Christianity, or the Bible, or Christ. His was the kind of Christianity that is so desperately needed today, not the holier-than-thou kind, not the in-your-face kind, or the pound-the-pulpit kind, but the human kind that ministers to humankind. For him it was about making heartfelt connections with children—part of what I call the Sacrament of Birth. Child rearing is an extension of that holiest of moments when a new soul enters our world and Mr. Rogers was a man who instinctively knew how to reach out to children in a way that drew them to him. He didn’t need to mention Jesus to get the message across.
Critics, among them Jordan Peterson, have castigated those who promote the “everyone’s special” plan of childrearing, finding in it the root of a slacker culture that doesn’t know how to get off its duff and do some real work to earn a living, dammit! But as his friends in the documentary explain, for Mr. Rogers “you’re special” simply meant letting a child know that he or she was loved and accepted. That acceptance would create a secure foundation in children to help them face the challenges and confusion and anxiety of growing up. I don’t know if Peterson specifically mentions Mr. Rogers in his many hours of video online, but to my thinking their messages are in synch. A good dose of Mr. Rogers would help you stand up straight and face the world, which is the first rule of Peterson’s Twelve Rules of Life.
I never saw Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, having grown up in the earlier Captain Kangaroo era, but my father-in-law knew Fred Rogers and told us, he was the real deal, a man whose TV persona was exactly the same as who he was day in, day out, at home, or testifying in front of Congress. Watch that scene in the film of the congressional hearing where the very existence of Public Television is on the line and a belligerent Senator Pastore is about ready to pull the plug on the funding. When Fred Rogers begins to speak, there is an almost immediate change in the atmosphere. There is a power in him, a power that fills the chamber. It’s awesome in the original sense of the word.
He was a guy who could look you square in the face and talk sincerely about feelings, and problems, and all kinds of important things, and whether you were a child or a hard-boiled politician, you listened and knew you could believe him and trust him.
He was the kind of guy you’d want to have as your neighbor.