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    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.
     

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    He recorded a message for his "grownup fans" a few months before he died. Goodness ages well.


    I was born in 1962 and my family moved to Pittsburgh in 1968, so I very much grew up in Mr. Rogers' niehgborhood.  In fact, he and his family lived across the street from my piano teacher and, by 1978, my best friend was dating one of his sons. So it was hard to leave the 'hood (literally) without leaving the town, which I ultimately did - not because of Mr. Rogers per se, but because unconditional love (as a doctrine) can also be suffocating.

    I listened to the recording above and it's the first time I've heard Fred Rogers' voice in several decades.  It still makes me uncomfortable.  I have a bad reaction to what I hear as 'baby talk.'  I have that reaction whenever I listen to parents talk to their children as if they were soft in the head, I had that reaction at 16 when my mother, denying the realities of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, still talked to me like I was 3, and I'm afraid I have that reaction even now when I hear this recording.

    My parents, assimilated, secular Jews, lived and breathed the gospel of unconditional love, which made them unassailable as loving parents, at the same time I could never talk to them about real-life things that were going on, because those things were too messy.  Which brings me back to a childhood where I was advised gently not to watch Sesame Street because it was too loud, too fast-paced, in short, too street.

    My dad died last year and, as he lay helpless to control the world he'd built for us, for the first time I learned that he (a former Navy man) could swear like a sailor.  Only at the end could he let go of a lifetime of repression.  I wish I'd met that person sooner.

    While I appreciate Doctor Cleveland's homage to Fred Rogers (which reminds me of the many long-overdue tributes to Jimmy Carter), at the same time, that voice just grates on me, representing as it does, to my ear, certain mechanisms of repression, sugar-coating the world in ways that make it difficult, once you leave pre-school, to confront and hash out not-so-nice things.

     



    I often, as an adult, found myself watching him.  Not on purpose, I'd be channel surfing and I'd catch a moment of him, and his directness never failed to draw me in.  I just liked being in the presence of such a man.   There was no guile, no artifice, just a nice person who wasn't trying to sell me anything.  So I'd watch a little of his show to get a booster shot of his spirit.  It was reassuring that such a person could be on TV.   I can see why he could talk to kids so effectively.  He didn't talk down to young children, he looked them in the eye and talked right to them.  He gently explored their fears, and reassured them that what they were feeling was okay.  You're right, his show was a ministry in the best sense of the word, and your blog was a joy to read.  Thanks for reminding me of this sweet, gentle man.


    A beautiful tribute, Doc.  I knew there was a reason I liked Mr. Rogers.  Now you've given me many.  Well done.


    I agree, this is a fine tribute.


    Aside from proclaiming that Christian objections to homosexuality are "tiny" and "minor" by a "minority", do you have anything objective to back that up with? From what I recall, the Christian missive about Sodom & Gommorah is a stronger and more commanding lesson than almost anything else in the Old Testament other than "sex is dirty/don't eat apples (fruit) from some tart", "growing veggies is lower than slaughtering red meat, but for Baal's sake don't kill your brother over it", and perhaps "if you hear God tell you go to the town of X, do it or you'll be swallowed by a whale - but live to tell about it" (which would make me more inclined to try it, but I only think of whale digestive juices in the abstract) - but in any case, dodging whales in the Mediterranean is a lot less frequent event for most Christians than say warding off buff cleft-chin right-amount-of-stubble metrosexuals at the gym. That God/angels apparently thought it was better to throw your virgin sister to the crowd of homosexual leches than see a guest violated says a lot about family values/attitudes towards women, along with Mideast ideas of hospitality. (presumably you could go about the Middle East pretending to be gay and get offered a lot of virgin sisters, but I haven't heard of anyone trying). Of course Lot's 2 daughters got him drunk and slept with him, so they were pretty much in-bred trailer-trash to start with, so maybe that was the qualifier, but then why the big flame in the desert and wife turned into a salt pillar over a bunch of rednecks? "God's mysterious ways" only starts to explain it - some kind of perverse Game of Thrones wannabe back before HBO, I guess.

    Watched a Katy Perry special last night, and you can be pretty damn sure that her parents didn't approve of that "kissed a girl" thing, and considering there was a whole Santa Barbara community where she grew up missing out on anything related to popular culture and singing only religious songs- but for much of the evangelical swaths of the United States, this seems to be exactly how people (don't) swing. During my last trip to the US, I'd try to find something on the radio and instead it was frequently 6 or 7 religious programs at a time *on a weekday*, and ominous billboards overhead about obeying God being more important than understanding, in a creepy Great Gatsby/East Egg/TJ Eckleburg kind of way.

    As for Mr. Rogers, I'd have more trouble with him than the fairly flamboyant presumably gay music teacher I once had - Mr. Rogers may have been nice, but his communication skills were a bit bent - something like the pilot & Jimmy in "Airplane".

    Anyway, thought I'd leave you with Saddam and Gamora

     

    Or was that Gamera? Damn Sumerian spelling's all over the place.


    Well, pp, I used the words "tiny, tiny minority" to describe the number of Christians who think handing out the marriage licenses jeopardizes Christian souls. And I think it's fair to say that even most people who object to gay sex on religious reasons don't think that.

    On the other hand, my description of the anti-gay-sex taboo as a minor doctrine is not a reflection of my own beliefs, or as a denial that my own denomination does have a doctrine against gay sex, but as a factual description of the hierarchy of doctrines within most Christian groups.

    It is a fact that there are Christian denominations that have largely or completely done away with this doctrine, but clearly remain Christian. The United Church of Christ is one prominent example. There are gay Episcopal priests, including gay Episcopal priests married to people of their own sex. They are obviously still Christian.

    Every religion has a large number of teachings and doctrines. But a smaller body of those doctrines are definitional, things that you absolutely have to believe or you're out. The anti-homosexuality rule is a doctrine of many Christian sects, but has never been one of the definitional doctrines of any major sects.

    If you're a Catholic who's okay with gay marriage, you're a Catholic who's ignoring a teaching of the Church, and that's a real thing you should worry about. But if you're a "Catholic" who's against gay marriage but doesn't believe that Jesus was God, you are not Catholic at all. (If you can't agree with everything in the creeds, you miss the cut.)

    You won't find, say, Luther or Calvin making homosexuality a primary focus of their thinking.

    The anti-gay-sex rule in the Catholic Church has roughly the same standing that the oft-ignored anti-capital-punishment does, or the who-knew? prohibition against consulting psychics or fortunetellers. Catholicism does actually teach that it is sinful to go to, say, a tarot card reading. An actual doctrine, but a minor one.

    Now, the anti-gay-sex rule does have some standing in the Old Testament, but that's not theologically comfortable because there are many rules in Torah that Christians dispose of. The anti-gay-sex rule has no backing in the New Testament, and doesn't flow easily from any of the major denominations' key theological teachings.

    The no-divorce rule, which most Christian groups bend, has a much firmer grounding, and the no-lending-money-at-interest rule, now almost universally abandoned, has very firm Scriptural backing.

    This is why Christians denouncing gay marriage resort to arguments about "Natural Law" as a supplementary guide to behavior, because they don't have enough Scriptural or theological material to make the case otherwise. When you hear someone talking about how gay marriage is unnatural because it can't produce children, that's an argument they are actually making because they have no actual Christian theology to back them. It's actually an indirect confession that they don't have a specifically Christian objection to make.

     


    A long post of splitting hairs, but basically "followed by only a... tiny, tiny minority of Christians" you might see a stat like "35% of practicing believers under 40 support the ruling on gay marriage".

    Someone yesterday sent me a guy's rant confusing the Pledge of Allegiance with the Constitution, and I've seen fundamentalist politicians who maybe could name 3 of the 10 (or 12?) commandments, but that's hardly a litmus test for whether they're in one of the US Christian churches - I imagine many people screw up basic "facts" of the Bible, and few probably understand what are the critical tenets vs the various adornments like avoiding crayfish. (a PRRI poll notes that Catholics often conflate the Pope's stance on gay marriage according to their own - whether for or against. Of course with the previous pope being gay, I can understand the closeted response).

    Your criticism of Catholics against gay marriage but not against interest-based-lending seems a bit pedantic & academic outside the Arab world - yeah, the world+dog doesn't follow the Bible verbatim - such a shocking Revelation. So then we move on to the real world...

    Pew Research puts 1/3 of Protestants as disagreeing with gay marriage - not quite a "tiny minority" but of course not a majority either - it's not 1969/Stonewall. The PRRI poll puts Catholics opposing or strongly opposing gay marriage at a similar 33% - significantly more than the gay population, one might note.

    So I'd say "tiny" is a bit inappropriate here, and in terms of respecting minority feelings & rights, its probably worth trying to understand & accommodate many points of view and like with any transition utilize some lessons from Change Management rather than dismiss and ride roughshod over people's feelings. Of course utilizing your laic position as a clerk to promote your religious beliefs rather turns the Bill of Rights on its head, but not everyone is so activist in the matter - it's still useful to understand that there is controversy & respect why there is even if it's changing.


    I said what I said:

    Only a tiny, tiny minority of Christians believe that handing same-sex couples a wedding license is somehow sinful.

    Clearly, the original sentence is not about gay marriage, but about doing the paperwork for someone else's gay marriage.

    If you want to pretend that I said something else, you have entered the Kingdom of Make-Believe.

     


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