NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Fred Rogers, better known as Mister Rogers from "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood," was famous for his ability to tackle controversial issues of his time and to delicately use his religious convictions to teach children how to be a “good neighbor.”
The film, "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," starring Tom Hanks as Rogers, is scheduled for release later this month. Louis Benjamin Rolsky, a part-time lecturer in Rutgers University–New Brunswick’s Department of Religion in the School of Arts and Sciences, says there could not be a more relevant time to understand Rogers’ use of religion as a tool to stand up against extremist views.
Rolsky discusses the themes from the popular children’s series and how we can benefit by incorporating his lessons on race, empathy and human compassion into our lives.
How did the atmosphere of the 1960s influence prime-time television and how did Rogers incorporate this influence in "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood?"
Rolsky: Back in the 1960s, as the civil rights and women's rights movements emerged in news programming, network television programming began incorporating these themes into prime-time television. Programs like Norman Lear’s All in the Family and Larry Gelbart’s "M*A*S*H" reflected this renewed attention to being relevant. Fred Rogers would follow suit but focus his efforts on children’s programming.
Rogers understood television less as a passive instrument of pure reception and more as an interactive medium that could shape individuals in real time, especially children. Rogers composed lessons that instilled a deep appreciation for understanding, empathy and positive reinforcement in those still searching for identity and understanding, but his ability to reach the hearts of children was truly remarkable.
How did Fred Rogers’ religious convictions motivate and inform "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood?"
Rolsky: Rogers became an ordained minister in 1963. His mission after becoming a minister was simple: to continue his ministry to children and families through the mass media. Rogers used the program as a unique space to teach the lessons of the Gospel -- namely, to treat others as you would like to be treated.
In many respects, Rogers’ religious sensibilities reflected the spirit of the Christian Beatitudes as heard in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “The most important goal of each show,” Rogers explained, “is to strengthen a child’s self-esteem.”
How did Rogers tackle challenging issues like war and race in "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood?"
Rolsky: The series aired five episodes in 1983 in which Rogers addressed the difficult subject of conflict between two neighboring lands, especially conflict caused by misunderstanding and anger. These episodes aired during a moment that still was soaked with Cold War fears of accumulated weapons and nuclear power. The series warned its audiences of the dangers of war in general and the stockpiling of bombs in particular.
Earlier in the series, during the program’s second season, Rogers invited an African-American police officer onto the set as “Officer Clemmons.” Played by actor François Clemmons, this particular moment in television history challenged not only the racial conventions of the time, but also embodied Rogers’ theological commitments to treating others as he would like to be treated. In the midst of war both abroad and at home, American audiences witnessed Rogers and Officer Clemmons cooling their feet in a small plastic swimming pool in the name of friendship and mutual understanding. Not only did this image challenge many racist assumptions at the time, but it also exemplified Rogers’ own understanding of religion as service.
How can people today whose political views are infused by their religious convictions learn from Rogers’ example?
Rolsky: Religious convictions are typically understood as mutually exclusive once uttered in mixed company. This is no truer than in our present moment of polarization. Rogers is a descendant of a long line of persons of faith who have adapted to their respective times by reflecting the most common media used. In Rogers' case, television suited his needs.
Less than 10 years later, "televangelists" would emerge to dominate the airwaves in the name of the same Gospel. This common usage of media and text should encourage us to talk more deeply about our differences. The better we understand them as unique points of view, the better we'll be able to move forward through conversation and careful listening. Rogers taught us nothing if not how to listen to the smallest of voices -- those of a child. We just have to learn how to listen better to those who talk the loudest.