Last week I left a nearly empty and depressed theater after viewing First Reformed, with Ethan Hawke as a despairing and increasingly fanatical pastor of a dying Reformed congregation. Reviewers, including Christian publications, have extolled its introspection about faith. They don’t mention that the pastor becomes an eco-terrorist whose suicidal plans to blow up his own congregation are disrupted only by his finale tryst with a five months pregnant widow whose suicidal eco-terrorist husband’s body is barely cold. Gross. No wonder nobody lingered during the credits. (Here’s my review.)
So last eve’s viewing of Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a documentary about a very different Mainline Protestant pastor, was the perfect antidote. Unlike the angst-absorbed Hawke character, Fred Rogers devoted his life to hope and encouragement aimed especially at small children, millions of whom watched his daily program across over 30 years. Through Mr. Rogers Neighborhood he reached several generations of a whole nation, mesmerized by his mystically slow conversation punctuated often by long, momentous pauses.
An ordained Presbyterian who attended Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Rogers saw his program as his ministry. He seemed sweet and ponderous, but he was endless energy, producing, screen writing, promoting and even composing music for his daily show across decades. He was the voice for all his own puppet characters. Without getting explicitly theological on PBS, his theme was the inherent God-given dignity of each person. Each child especially needed to know he or she is loved and ideally protected. Critics, as the film briefly shows, accuse him of fostering narcissism, but they misunderstood.
Mr. Rogers debuted in America, after Canadian precursors, in 1968, aimed at preschoolers. I started watching it not long after and thought it amazing. The show alternated with life lessons from Mr. Rogers and his neighbors and visits to the Neighborhood of Make Believe, presided over by a benignly autocratic monarch, King Friday, who, like most of his subjects, was a puppet with voice by Rogers.
As the documentary recalls, Mr. Rogers addressed contemporary social issues without getting overtly political. RFK’s assassination was discussed at the start, as was the space shuttle explosion and other national tragedies. The show ended right before 9-11 but Rogers returned to the air to share his distraught reassurance, focusing in every situation, as his mother taught him, on people who were helping. He also addressed more routine losses for children such as divorce and deaths of family members, addressing the world as it is, not as a fantasy. One episode featured a little boy crippled for life. His parents recall in the film how Rogers, who stressed appreciation for those who have helped us, changed their lives.
Mr. Rogers was consummately Presbyterian and Mainline Protestant: orderly, disciplined, confident, upbeat, measured, reforming, earnest, nice. His neighborhood was both old-fashioned and somewhat edgy. The local policeman was a black man with whom Rogers taught subtle lessons about racial equality. There were endless lessons, always lessons, taught by humans and puppets, but never stridently or too preachily, although Rogers was a preacher with a national pulpit.
A book several years ago, Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers, claimed he was a spiritual progressive, even radical, who though Presbyterian, associated with Quakers and was pacifist. Maybe so, but the film doesn’t fully make this case, briefly noting that Rogers was a lifelong registered Republican. He likely was a 1950s liberal Mainline Protestant who believed in civil rights, equality for women, social uplift and harmony, with peace, achieved in orderly fashion, not radical, angry activism. One of his actor colleagues was upset he didn’t deploy the show against the 1993 Persian Gulf War. But Rogers like most wise clergy knew not to exceed his brief, preaching principles, not policy.
The black character on the show was also gay, and Rogers, who became a father figure to him, asked him not to visit gay bars or publicize himself. Rogers’ denomination did not liberalize its stance on sexuality until after he died. The film doesn’t detail his personal theology. His son in the film recalls the difficulty of having a father who was Christ-like. When Rogers wanted to admonish his sons, he spoke in a puppet voice. His widow is also endearingly in the film, remembering as he was dying he asked her if he was a “sheep,” i.e. belonging to Christ at the Last Judgment. She assured him he was. He died not long after his show ended, as though his work were complete.
When I was about age 10, too old and sophisticated for Mr. Rogers, I was taken with my younger brother to a PBS studio to see him. The studio full of children erupted when he arrived, and I also surrendered to the excitement. He was captivating. A few years later my grandmother and I spotted him in a shopping mall. He charmingly glanced in our direction, as though he knew us. Millions of us thought we did know him. By all accounts, confirmed by the film, he was as he seemed.
When the film ended last eve, unlike with First Reformed, the crowd lingered, as the credits included a reunion between the paralyzed boy Mr. Rogers had hosted on his program, by then a man. Nobody wanted Won’t You Be My Neighbor to end.