I never watched much of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” but with the recent documentary and the upcoming major bio film about him starring Tom Hanks I kind of wish I had. For it seems Fred Rogers was one of those most rare human beings: He was who he appeared to be.
I spent a lot of time working in the TV business trying to, if not make it big, at least make it medium. Though I fell woefully short of that lofty goal, I did come across quite a few public personages who appeared to be one way in public and something entirely different when the cameras were off.
Some of them, if I had written them as characters in a script, would have been instantly dismissed by critics as being one-dimensional and cliché. But these walking, talking clichés did exist, and I am fully confident, given the fallen nature of mankind, continue to haunt the soundstages, theater boards, and TV studios of Los Angeles.
Having more than one face is not a function of merely the rich and famous. We have a tendency toward putting up facades. Not so with Fred Rogers. Testimony from his widow and his children in the Rogers documentary tell a story of a deeply religious and quiet man who held fast to his beliefs and was a man who took the gospel message to heart. He proved the gospel message does not have to be shouted out from the pulpit of a megachurch or televised along with a special $9.95 prayer towel “offering.”
Granted, Rogers’ faith was a particularly protestant form; he was an ordained Presbyterian minister, but that fact only reinforces the post-conciliar Catholic worldview where we are supposed to celebrate truth wherever we find it intersects with the teachings of the Church … even if that truthful path is not the full measure of what Christ gave us with the apostolic Church.
One of the great “tricks” he pulled off was showing a version of masculinity that is almost never shown via popular culture platforms. We want our action heroes, we want our characters to be on the edge of things. Rogers always put himself in the middle of things and stooped to a child’s level, never in a condescending way, but in a way, dare I say it, Jesus might have done in his time. And in the process, he showed anyone willing to notice that warriors don’t always come in suits of armor … sometimes they appear in comfy sweaters and sneakers.
I know it’s not fair to judge a movie before it even comes out and obviously before I have seen it, but, call me a cynic, I would wager the Tom Hanks movie is liable to get Rogers’ faith wrong. One such indicator is a quote from Hanks after the movie received rave reviews at the Toronto Film Festival. Hanks mentions that Rogers was indeed an ordained minister but seems to take comfort that Rogers “never mentioned God in his show.”
First off, we are talking about a children’s show. If anyone ever had a grasp of scale and appropriateness, it was Rogers. From everything I’ve ever heard about Tom Hanks, he does seem to be a genuinely good guy and I don’t believe his comfort level with Rogers not ever mentioning God on his kiddie show is a passive-aggressive display of animus to the almighty. It is more likely just a function of Hanks being a man of his time.
It’s not so much that the popular culture doesn’t understand Rogers. His deeply Christian message of compassion and understanding and taking people as he finds them are the kind of universal truths that can be found both in the Ten Commandments and the Eight Beatitudes. It’s that this culture, like all cultures that distance themselves from the one-two punch of faith and reason, are never comfortable with open displays of spirituality, unless it is the kind of anything goes, follow-your-bliss kind of spirituality found on the Oprah Winfrey book of the month club list.
Popular culture and especially mainstream Hollywood didn’t then and still don’t seem to understand who Rogers was worshipping. And I would not be so presumptuous, and I can get presumptuous at times, to declare I know what Rogers’ faith was either, or if he was trying to sneak up on people like Tom Hanks with his Christian message. That, like with all of us, is between him and God. But I can certainly look at the fruit of his version of his faith — and celebrate.