What's Tony Thinking

Mr. Rogers and Mainline Protestantism


David Brooks wrote a lovely column the other day about a lovely man, Fred Rogers, longtime host of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.”

There’s a new movie out about Mr. Rogers, his life and work, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I’ve not seen it, but look forward to doing so.

One of Brooks observations about Rogers, his world-view and values, is that Rogers embodied the mainline Protestant ethos once dominant in America. Here’s Brooks on the movie:

“There’s nothing obviously moving here, and yet the audience is moved: sniffling, wiping the moisture from their cheeks. The power is in Rogers’s radical kindness at a time when public kindness is scarce. It’s as if the pressure of living in a time such as ours gets released in that theater as we’re reminded that, oh yes, that’s how people can be.

“Moral elevation gains strength when it is scarce.

“But there’s also something more radical going on. Mister Rogers was a lifelong Republican and an ordained Presbyterian minister. His show was an expression of the mainline Protestantism that was once the dominating morality in American life.”

Brooks’ observation that Rogers’ show “was an expression of the mainline Protestantism that was once the dominating morality in American life” rings true for me. It made me proud of us — not a sentiment one gets to experience all that often these days.

And it made me wistful. Not only have we, as a society, lost much of Mr. Rogers “radical kindness,” but mainline Protestantism has a much diminished confidence and sense of self.

It may puzzle some readers that Mr. Rogers was both a lifelong Republican and Presbyterian minister. But many mainliners were Republicans, back in the day.

Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle, where nary a Republican can today be found, was once dominated by Republicans of, as we hasten to say, “the Dan Evans type” (former governor and senator). That type of Republican has also gone missing.

Brooks is theologically perceptive in pointing out that there was more to Mr. Rogers than being sweet and kind. There was a kind of gospel radicalism at work.

“And here is the radicalism that infused that show: that the child is closer to God than the adult; that the sick are closer than the healthy; that the poor are closer than the rich and the marginalized closer than the celebrated.”

Note that Rogers radicalism (as channeled by Brooks) is not the same thing as the contemporary tendency to claim and celebrate the victim. That line of thinking that has become dominant in some parts of mainline Protestantism. If you can claim victim status of some sort, you’ve got the moral high ground.

There’s was nothing in Rogers of being a victim or looking at kids in that way.

He says something different. That the small, the broken and the vulnerable are likely “closer to God.”

This mainline Protestantism provided a cautionary check on the American tendency to worship success, power and control. It insisted that, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “God’s ways are not our ways; God’s thoughts not our thoughts.” Or as in the Old Testament, “God does not look on outward appearances. God looks upon the heart.”

Brooks’ piece does suggest that there may be a silver lining to the mean-spirited time of Trump. “Moral elevation gains strength when it is scarce.” Perhaps our current troubled time will move us to a renewed sense and appreciation for the value of our institutions and social norms of decency and kindness.

Those norms and values embodied by Fred Rogers.





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