Michael Coren is a columnist and broadcaster, and author of The Future of Catholicism, Why Catholics Are Right and Epiphany: A Christian’s Change of Heart and Mind Over Same-Sex Marriage.
The Toronto International Film Festival has just begun, and one of the more anticipated movies on offer is A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the story of fictional Esquire journalist Lloyd Vogel profiling broadcaster Fred Rogers, who is played by Tom Hanks. Mr. Vogel is initially reluctant about the assignment, regarding Mr. Rogers as a saccharine lightweight, but the experience and the relationship become life-changing. The movie follows on from last year’s award-winning documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which explored the philosophy behind perhaps the most popular children’s entertainer in the history of television.
Both films are part of a reassessment of the man since his death in 2003, a new realization of just how influential and beneficial he was not just to American children, but also to the country’s perception and understanding of itself, and to its grasp of what it represents. At a time when self-doubt and even self-loathing is dominating discourse in Donald Trump’s America, the country is looking to an anchor of sense and sensibility, and finding it in what is at first glance a strange place. Fred Rogers, he of puppets, toys and perennial optimism, is seen as the best of America. But that is rather missing the point.
The quintessence of the man was not his nationality but his faith. If he was the best of anything, it was Christianity, which stuns those who are understandably bruised by a faith that in the United States is often seen now as intolerant, and as infecting rather than informing the body politic. With Mr. Rogers, the faith was implicit, and it was this subtle witness of grace that made him so compelling. He’s not the only Christian in public life to have acted thus, of course, but this is where the difficulty, the paradox, presents. Far too often, the loudest of believers are those on the raucous right, who instead of speaking of the good news shout about the bad.
He was a Presbyterian, and an ordained minister, but rather than fierce Calvinism, his theology was bathed in optimism. “The big thing about God is God’s faithfulness: not giving up on those with whom God has made covenant," he said. And, “I’m wary of people who insist on trying to make other people feel bad about themselves. The more I look around me and within me, the more I notice that those who feel best about themselves have the greatest capacity to feel good about others.”
So when we see him gently prodding us, adults as well as children, toward something universal and – in its purest, most authentic form – kind, we’re not witnessing banality but heartfelt belief. He once told an angry Christian who insisted that people were damned unless they found Jesus, “God loves you just the way you are.”
What is fascinating to realize in this age of right-wing evangelicalism is that Mr. Rogers was a lifelong Republican. He opposed former president Richard Nixon on many issues, he was consistently progressive on racial equality and embraced many liberal virtues, but saw himself as a conservative – in the best, currently misplaced, or even irretrievably lost, sense.
That tension is epitomized by his relationship with François Clemmons, an African-American actor who he brought into the show to play a police officer, at a time when black performers were seldom seen on television. Mr. Clemmons was also gay, and while he says that Mr. Rogers was affirming of his sexuality, he also told him off-screen not to attend gay clubs in case he was noticed and thus offended valuable sponsors.
Yet, in one particularly poignant episode of the show in 1969, set on a hot summer day, Mr. Rogers asks Mr. Clemmons to cool his feet in the water of a paddling pool, and he then takes a towel and dries them. This was at a time when large parts of the United States were still segregated, and only months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Here was Fred Rogers, a hero for children and icon to adults, washing the feet of a black, gay man. The Christian symbolism is inescapable.
The Bible can be taken seriously or it can be taken literally, but not both. It’s inspired, it’s full of truth and wisdom, but it’s not divine dictation, or dictatorship, for that matter. At its very core is not a call to judge but a command to love, and it’s the fundamentalists who are, ironically, betraying its meaning. It took a children’s entertainer to appreciate that, to live it, and to introduce it to our neighbourhood. Thank God he did.
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