Often people are moved to tears by sadness, but occasionally people are moved to tears by goodness. That’s what’s happens to the audiences of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the new documentary about Fred Rogers.
The movie demonstrates how his “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” got started and how he used it over 30 years to teach and accompany children. It highlights the famous opening sequence — Mister Rogers going to the closet, putting on the sweater, changing his shoes. It describes how he gently gave children obvious and non-obvious advice: You are special just the way you are, and no, children can’t fall down the bathtub drain.
Sometimes he would slow down time, be silent for long periods as he fed his fish. Occasionally his show touched politics. During the civil rights era, when black kids were being thrown out of swimming pools, Rogers and a black character bathed their feet together in a tub. After Bobby Kennedy was killed, Rogers gently explained what an assassination was.
There’s nothing obviously moving here, and yet the audience is moved. The power is in Rogers’ 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.
Once, as Tom Junod described in Esquire magazine, Rogers met a 14-year-old boy whose cerebral palsy left him sometimes unable to walk or talk. Rogers asked the boy to pray for him.
The boy was thunderstruck. He had been the object of prayers many times, but nobody had asked him to pray for another. He said he would try since Mister Rogers must be close to God, and if Mister Rogers liked him, he must be OK.
Junod complimented Rogers on cleverly boosting the boy’s self-esteem, but Rogers didn’t look at the situation that way at all: “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”
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.
In the gospel of Fred Rogers, children are our superiors in the way they trust each person they meet, the way they lack guile, the way a child can admit simple vulnerability.
Children are superior for their instinctive small acts of neighborliness, the small hug, sharing a toy. In 1997 a teenage boy in Kentucky warned classmates that “something big” was going to happen. The next day he took a gun to school and shot eight classmates, killing three. Mister Rogers’ response was, “Oh, wouldn’t the world be a different place if he had said, ‘I’m going to do something really little tomorrow.’ Rogers dedicated a week’s worth of shows to the theme of “Little and Big,” on how little things can be done with great care.
Rogers was drawing on a long moral tradition, that the last shall be first. It wasn’t just President Donald Trump who reversed that morality, though he does represent a cartoonish version of the idea that winners are better than losers, the successful are better than the weak. That morality got reversed long before Trump came on the scene, by an achievement-oriented success culture, by a culture that swung too far from humble and earnest charity.
Rogers was singing from a song sheet now lost, a song sheet that once joined conservative evangelicals and secular progressives. The song sheet may be stacked somewhere in a drawer in the national attic, ready for reuse once again.