The Mister Rogers-ification of Christianity


I would not dream of condemning Mister Rogers for keeping overt religious references out of his broadcasts in order to reach the widest possible audience and provide a valuable public service with his message of love. What I do condemn is the idea that Christian faith does not deserve representation unless first watered down to platitudes that replace the Cross with the Golden Rule, and the expectation that Christians, in public situations, ought to practice a similar self-censorship…

As a former Pittsburgh-area kid, I love Mr. Rogers.

His history as a Navy SEAL may be the stuff of urban legend, but as an ordained Presbyterian minister living out his calling as a children’s TV host, Fred Rogers helped generations of kids cope with issues like death, divorce, and anger. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which debuted nationally in 1968 and aired for the last time in 2001, provided an important alternative to the helter-skelter commercial bombardment of most children’s programming.

I may not always agree with his liberal theology, but it would be difficult to overestimate how much good Fred Rogers did for our society, and I’ve spent more time than I’d care to admit crying over Mr. Rogers stories on social media.

But while I admire the man, I have frequently been disturbed by the extent to which people praise and even canonize Rogers. As a recent essay in The Atlantic bearing the headline “Saint Fred” put it, “Fred Rogers was an ordained minister, but he was no televangelist, and he never tried to impose his beliefs on anyone.”

This idea crops up again and again in puff pieces on Mr. Rogers that run in secular publications. Take this anecdote from a 2015 HuffPost essay:

In May 2001… [Rogers] encountered a man who was arguing with his co-workers about salvation. The man recognized Rogers, grabbed him, and said: ‘Tell these people there’s only one way to God.’

It seems the man was quite intent on making sure that his co-workers believed in the literal truth of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’

But Rogers did not take the bait of Christian exclusivism: ‘And I said,’ Rogers recounted, ‘God loves you just the way you are.’[*]

If “exclusivism” is the great enemy, it follows that Christianity is most admirable when it abandons its particular doctrinal and historical character, reducing itself to a series of vague, humanistic platitudes that you might hear from Oprah.

And speaking of Oprah, if you need another example of how Christians are pressured to let the feel-good secular gospel swallow their faith, look no further than the new film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, in which Oprah played a starring role.

L’Engle’s novel was plenty inclusive, some would say to the point of syncretism, naming Buddha as a “warrior of light” alongside Jesus Christ and St. Francis of Assisi. Unfortunately, though, the screenwriter who penned the new adaptation wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than the total erasure of Christianity from the film. In an interview with UPROXX, screenwriter Jennifer Lee said she removed all of the novel’s Christian references from the film in order to make it more diverse and “inclusive,” explaining that “we have progressed as a society and we can move onto the other elements [of the book].”

The implication that Christianity is just a crude and outdated framework best left on the ash heap of history is odd when you consider the people who often make the claim.

Imagine Ms. Lee or the author of that HuffPost essay praising a gay television host who hid his sexuality in order to make his show more inclusive. In fact, we usually see the opposite. People of other ethnicities, classes, languages, and sexual and gender identities are treated as heroes when they choose to “live their truth” loudly and publicly. Telling them to tone it down and assimilate is condemned as an act of erasure or cultural imperialism.

If liberals obsessed with identity politics want to be consistent, they’ll need to start taking religion seriously. When actor Diego Luna spoke with his natural Mexican accent in Star Wars: Rogue One, his refusal to water down that aspect of his identity was hailed as a triumph of representation. Why, then, should Christians be expected to hide our lights under bushels for the sake of everyone else’s comfort, especially when faith is, for many people, far more important than race or sexuality in determining their identities? Why the double standard?

I would not dream of condemning Mr. Rogers for keeping overt religious references out of his broadcasts in order to reach the widest possible audience and provide a valuable public service with his message of love. What I do condemn is the idea that Christian faith does not deserve representation unless first watered down to platitudes that replace the Cross with the Golden Rule, and the expectation that Christians, in public situations, ought to practice a similar self-censorship.

The moment Christians agree to stop insisting that our faith, in all its historical and doctrinal particularity, matters is the moment the Christian faith becomes obsolete.

Lady Elaine Fairchilde: Devil in a Red Cape

I have to say I was never afraid of her, but I always felt something was…off about Lady Elaine. Her appearance, right off the bat. In stark opposition to the other denizens of the Neighborhood of Make Believe she’s pretty damn ugly. The red cheeks and nose always made me think (even at a tender and innocent age) that she was drunk ALL THE GODDAMN TIME. She was sarcastic in a show otherwise so straight you could build a house with it. The haircut was doing her no favors at all.  And the Batiuk-esque smirk and raised eyebrows, her face eternally frozen in a mocking superiority. She was, in a word, odd.

This all came about  from an off-hand comment I made on Twitter that led me down the darkened alleyway of a Neighborhood of Make Believe/Snatch mashup  But never mind that. As one does, I turned to Wikipedia to fill in my spotty memory of other characters who lived on the other side of the trolley tracks. And the entry on Lady Elaine (sub-entry, actually, nested with all the other “Regular Puppets.” I bet that would have burned her biscuits) is of course fascinating.

I recalled that Lady Elaine was frequently the antagonist of the vignettes due to selfishness or stubbornness or some other character flaw. What I didn’t recall was that she was apparently a fucking sociopath and that the nigh-omnipotence of the Boomerang Toomerang Zoomerang allowed her to bend reality itself to her freakish whims. Observe:

She is afraid of vacuum cleaners and regards them as weapons. In one episode she attempts to destroy all vacuum cleaners that are not in her possession. At the end of the program Mr. Rogers says to the audience “I’m glad you’re old enough to talk about your problems and not just wipe things out like Lady Elaine”.

Sweet merciful dumptruck! Was this episode targeted toward the preschool scions of the Olympus? Or the newly incarnate Beyonder, learning to pee in Peter Parker’s apartment? What the hell kind of lesson is that, Fred?

She uses her Boomerang to turn the Neighborhood upside down or to move buildings around or cover all the paintings in the neighborhood with clay or to basically do whatever the hell she feels like.

So I began wondering what, exactly, Fred Rogers intended in creating this character? Could she be the Devil?

Let’s dig for clues. Wikipedia informs me her favorite color is red (that works), as noted above she is terrified of vacuum cleaners (a trait more common in housecats than in supernatural manifestations of evil), sh plays the accordion (an instrument second only to the bagpipe in the eyes of Satan), and that she has a thing for roosters. Roosters are usually associated with the sun due to their unholy practice of screeching at the first sight of the damnable thing. But in Norse lore they’re messengers from the Underworld. That’s interesting at least. Not sure where to go with it.

In the end I seriously doubt that devoted Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers would have a character on his show representing Satan (although the temptation to run with a Daniel Striped Tiger/Christ analogy is powerful). Especially since at the end of every episode where Lady Elaine causes trouble with her magical powers, she puts everything back to rights again, and everyone in the Neighborhood accepts and tolerates her and knows that she’s just acting out due to low self-esteem (whaaaa? I never caught that when I was a kid. As noted above, I just figured she was constantly hammered). So she’s more of a mischievous god-figure, a trickster who really has a heart of gold underneath that brash exterior.

Whatever she was though, she was definitely unsettling to my five year old mind and apparently to lots of other kids out there too. It’s probably a testament to the genius of Fred Rogers that he never smoothed her out, never made a new puppet without the W.C. Fields-like cheeks and Doctor Smith eyebrows, never diluted her personality with “nice.” She was a bit of odd in a sea of nice and normal. And scary as she may have been, I loved her for it.

Comment:  In the original “Neighborhood,” Lady Elaine served as a somewhat scary antagonist, but Ms. Santomero said the aspect of her personality that was most important to Fred Rogers’ colleagues was that Lady Elaine thought differently than all the other characters and questioned authority. “We took those characteristics and created this inventive, creative, whimsical character that’s a little out-there,” she said, “but not necessarily in a scary way.”


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