'Saint Fred': The Atlantic pitches the idea of sainthood for Mister Rogers

Was Mister Rogers a saint? The Atlantic proposes the idea in a frankly admiring bouquet of an article. But the piece has more than its share of religious ghosts: hints of spirituality that are not fully explored.

Now, I'm going to get picky in this review ("Why stop now?", some of you might say).  There is much good in this article on the minister who reassured young viewers through his sweet, simple song It's You I Like. But just as uncut flowers can look ragged and overgrown, florid writing can also get a little unkempt.

The writer does some more-than-decent reporting, not only reciting facts but putting them into a meaningful context. He says Rogers purposely kept a low-tech TV style that instilled patience and kindness. The magazine's own research found that children often talked back to his televised image -- and that Rogers, anticipating their replies, continued the "conversation" in the telecast.

The Atlantic even suggests that Mister Rogers' Neighborhood had saintlike healing powers. In one anecdote, an autistic child learned to speak via the show. In another, Lauren Tewes of Love Boat fame said God helped her kick cocaine "through the instrument of Mister Rogers."

In many places, though, the 1,500-word article is a case of flawed excellence. Here's an example:

Fred Rogers was an ordained minister, but he was no televangelist, and he never tried to impose his beliefs on anyone. Behind the cardigans, though, was a man of deep faith. Using puppets rather than a pulpit, he preached a message of inherent worth and unconditional lovability to young viewers, encouraging them to express their emotions with honesty. The effects were darn near supernatural.
He was Protestant. But if Protestants had saints, Mister Rogers might already have been canonized.

Umm, Protestants do have saints. How else did St. Paul Lutheran Church in Austin, Texas, get its name? Or St. Ruth Missionary Baptist in Dania Beach, Fla.? Or St. Andrew's United Methodist in Charlotte, N.C.?  Just in Washington, D.C., site of The Atlantic's offices, you have Episcopal churches named for St. John, St. Mark, St. Thomas, St. Margaret and St. Columba, among others.

Then there's that backhanded compliment about Rogers never trying to "impose his beliefs on anyone" -- a shopworn phrase that I thought was left behind in the 1980s. When you promote "inherent worth and unconditional lovability," and encourage children to express their emotions, those, too, are beliefs -- nice ones, but beliefs nonetheless. And whether they are "imposed" or merely proffered is a purely subjective call.

Another mixed example is the story on why Rogers got into television:

In the wake of World War II, thousands of veterans returned from battle and started families. These shell-shocked heroes risked creating a generation of emotionally stunted children. Television was a perfect vehicle for teaching kids to cope with life’s difficulties and express their feelings, but it was used mostly for mindless entertainment.
"After graduating from seminary, the Presbyterian Church didn’t know what to do with Fred," says Amy Hollingsworth, author of The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers. "So the presbytery gave him a special commission to be an evangelist to children through the media."
Fred’s faith surfaced in subtle, indirect ways that most viewers might miss, but it infused all he did. He believed "the space between the television set and the viewer is holy ground," but he trusted God to do the heavy lifting. The wall of his office featured a framed picture of the Greek word for "grace," a constant reminder of his belief that he could use television "for the broadcasting of grace through the land." Before entering that office each day, Rogers would pray, "Dear God, let some word that is heard be yours."

A qualified "Bravo" for this section. First, the writer locates the birth of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" in the anxiety of the postwar period; many articles on the late '40s focus either on the economic boom or the Red Scare.

Then the article offers a glimpse of the grace and holiness with which Rogers approached the humble task of children's television. The Atlantic even retells his prayer for God to speak through his show. Wow.

Why "qualified," then? Because of the vagaries amid the laurels. In what way(s) is the space between the TV and the viewer holy ground? And what did Rogers mean by grace? Many of us use those words, but in widely varying ways. If we are to understand Rogers better, we need to know his views of grace and holiness.

Finally The Atlantic shows insight in defending Rogers' belief in the uniqueness of every child:

Some have suggested that this message sought to instill children with a sense of self-importance, but to believe that is to fundamentally misunderstand Fred Rogers. At the core of Rogers’ mission was the paradoxical Christian belief that the way to gain one’s life is to give it away.
"The underlying message of the Neighborhood," Rogers once said, "is that if somebody cares about you, it’s possible that you’ll care about others. ‘You are special, and so is your neighbor’—that part is essential: that you’re not the only special person in the world. The person you happen to be with at the moment is loved, too."

Kudos to The Atlantic for spotting the idea of giving oneself as a "paradoxical Christian belief." Even better would have been to name the source of the ideal of treating others as you wish to be treated. That comes, of course, from Jesus' "Golden Rule" in Luke 6:31: "And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise."

Saints are indeed admirable folks, but they are not saintly in themselves. They are good people because of the one they honor and emulate. He should have gotten more than a passing mention.


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