Love Your Neighbor as Yourself: How America’s Fascination with Mr. Rogers Can Help Heal our Culture’s Vitriolic Division

A gangly pre-teen, I was “too old” for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood when the soft-spoken man in the red sweater and tennis shoes captured the hearts of American children, but still I watched him.

Public television was a new thing back then and besides, there was only one TV in the house. Agitated and worn from another school day trying to fit in with peers I didn’t understand and who didn’t understand me, I would plop on the living room couch and watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with my kindergarten brother.

Sure, I snickered at Henrietta Pussycat’s meow-meowing and King Friday’s pomposity, but Mr. Rogers was a comforting presence the year my family moved from the Kansas prairie to a university town where I knew nobody in the crowded hallways at school and where I was hopelessly behind the changing times.

Lady Aberlin fascinated me as I sat with my after-school snack and pretended I was bored with my brother’s show. She was pretty and kind and a good listener, and I though I wouldn’t have admitted it if you’d asked, I enjoyed her conversations with Daniel Tiger and Prince Tuesday. She protected me, at least a little, from growing up too fast. She made it okay to be innocent.

Mr. Rogers himself had a way of asking “would you be mine, could you be mine” that was believable even through a TV screen. He told his viewers they were good just as they were, and for half an hour I’d set aside the affectation of every experimental identity I was busy trying with my peers and simply be one of Mr. Rogers’ neighbors.

And what an enduring career this gentle man had in a medium known for fast-paced vapidity!

Mr. Rogers would end up winning many awards for his pioneering television work, including receiving The Presidential Award for Freedom. One of his signature red sweaters now resides in the Smithsonian as a “treasure of American history.”

His show was so enduring that when I married and had children, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was still on public television. My boys and I often started our day with 30 minutes of Fred Rogers’ slow-paced exploration of the wonderful world without and within.

Many years after that, I became a counselor and began working with children in a rural, high poverty primary school. I taught social-emotional lessons based on the curriculum that already existed in the school, but soon, with the encouragement of an extraordinary principal, I began creating lessons of my own.

I found myself writing little songs and using puppets to get my message across to the little ones at my feet, but it wasn’t until the staff presented me with a copy of The World According to Mr. Rogers: Important Things to Remember and a friend gave me her copy of The Simple Faith of Mr. Rogers: Spiritual Insights from the World’s Most Beloved Neighbor that I recognized how much I’d been influenced by the man who came to be known as everybody’s favorite neighbor.

The enduring appeal of Fred Rogers speaks to a desire we all have to be loved, to love others and to live what we say we believe.

When I heard that Tom Hanks was playing Mr. Rogers on the big screen, I knew I had to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, but I knew nothing of the story behind the film, which turns out to be a fictional rendering of a real-life story concerning the intergenerational forgiveness brought about by a cynical journalist’s encounter with Fred Rogers, whom he’s been assigned to interview for a 400 word piece in Esquire.

I’ve been working with traumatized children and their parents for two decades, so I recognized Lloyd Vogel’s surly attempts to bring out the worst in Rogers. He wanted to verify his own wounded belief that a man who appears to be that kind must be a fake. (Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys, is a fictionalized version of Tom Junod, who profiled Rogers in “Can You Say . . . Hero?” the 1998 article which inspired the film.)

As the story unfolds we find that the real-life Rogers, though certainly not perfect, was remarkably true to his TV persona. In one scene, Vogel asks Rogers’ wife Joanne to reveal the secret behind her husband’s goodness. He reads Scripture, she tells the reporter. He prays for people by name. He swims for an hour every day.

Faith? Fitness? It seems their consistent practice brought out the best in the man who was once a boy called “Fat Freddy” by the kids at his school.

There’s an unforgettable image in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood of Hanks-as-Rogers dripping as he sits on a bench after finishing his daily swim, praying by name for a long list of friends, one of whom is the journalist Lloyd Vogel.

The fleshy nakedness of the man in swim trunks brings to mind the naked Christ, who interceded for us on the Cross and who taught us that love of neighbor is second only in importance to love of God.

The order is important, because we can’t pull off that love on our own. Perhaps that’s why, though many of us wish we could love others consistently, we so often fail. We’ve forgotten that help is available. Instead of reading the Scriptures and sticking with prayer, we talk about how bad all the other unloving people are.

We act just like the people we condemn and we save good deeds for selfies rather than simply being present to the person right in front of us.

We forget that Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritain in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood tells a story so powerful that when I returned home from the theater I set out to learn more. I discovered that last year’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is still available on Amazon Prime and HBO. It is a rich, inspiring film featuring footage of the real life Mr. Rogers and interviews with his wife, sons and the real Tom Junod as well.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? reveals how courageously true to his beliefs Fred Rogers really was, taking on-camera risks to help children understand the tragedy of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and making his own statement against racism through his friendship, on and off screen, with the gay black man who played Officer (François) Clemmons in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Who is my neighbor?

There’s no doubt that Rogers, the ordained Presbyterian minister, knew that everybody is the right answer. He made both his life and his television show a living response to the question.

Recently I read a profound article on the French Catholic philosopher René Girard. In it, Girard biographer Cynthia Haven shows us how increasingly similar to the “other” who opposes us with hatred we’ve all become in the social media age.

“We all embrace the idea of forgiving,” Haven acknowledges. “It makes us feel grand and noble. But forgiveness is more than self-help—it comes from another plane altogether.

Rather than mere forgiveness, Girard (the thinker who thoroughly addressed humanity’s tendency to scapegoat and demonstrates how Christ turned it on its head) called for “a complete renunciation of violence,” saying:

We must face our neighbors and declare unconditional peace.

Somewhere in our angry, mudlslinging hearts, I think we know that this is the solution to our cultural problem.

I offer our enduring fascination with Mr. Rogers as evidence. When asked in an NBC interview what her husband would think of today’s polarized culture, Joanne Rogers’ answer surprised no one: “I think he would be appalled.”

Deciding to love God once again and our neighbor as ourself is the only way out of the mess we’ve made.

Let’s take a cue from the red-sweatered man who still fascinates us, stop the the venom and vitriol and listen to each other as neighbors.

And start (or increase) praying for each other, especially our enemies, by name.

“Listening is where love begins,” wrote Fred Rogers, “listening to ourselves and then to our neighbors.”

Would you be mine?

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Top Ten Things A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Got Factually Right is a quick video take on the film’s backstory and includes a few of the film’s “fudges” as well.

“America is being torn apart, but the problem isn’t incivility or anger; it’s contempt–the conviction that those who disagree with us are not just incorrect, but worthless.” That’s Arthur Brooks, Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and Arthur C. Patterson Faculty Fellow at the Harvard Business School and columnist for The Washington Post. This series of three short videos on Amazon Prime is based on his book Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America and is a perfect introduction to the possibility of a more dignified culture where where we can disagree with each other without destroying each other in the process..

Photo by Christian Stahl on Unsplash.