Note: In our new series, Anglo-Catholic of the Week, we will examine the lives of certain counter-cultural saints who have shown us the way toward a functioning Benedict Option. Like the Tractarians and Ritualists, they often baffled society with their witness. They aren’t all the likeliest candidates for catholic canonization, but I believe that we must admire and imitate their examples as we would the Holy Fathers.
Rev. Fred McFeely Rogers was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania in 1928. He was overweight as a child, and responded to bullying by retreating into fantasy and make believe (his favorite outlet: a ventriloquist dummy). He later studied for Presbyterian ministry while producing The Children’s Corner for WQED Pittsburgh. At this time, he came to see television as a vocation.
Mr. Rogers hated the influence of television on children, but was fascinated by its appeal. Further, he felt no call to mainstream ministry. He went on to produce Mister Roger’s Neighborhood (1968-2001), which he hoped would defy the trend of obscene and just plain ridiculous shows that he believed were crowding contemporary airwaves.
According to the recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, his Christian reaction against mainstream media consisted in the following:
- Routine. Mr. Rogers’ uniform of sweater and sneakers, and the calm pacing of his show, were cultivated to make his young viewers feel safe. He had no fear of being formulaic, a quality viewed as a swear-word by many critics. It wouldn’t be excessive to say that his show has a liturgical quality.
- Silence. The Neighborhood was originally low-tech because it was low budget. Mr. Rogers kept it that way because he felt that the lack of dazzling effects would have a good effect on children who were overstimulated by most other current television shows, with their action and gun-play.
- His complaint about immoral television seems irrelevant in a day and age when shows like South Park and The Walking Dead air legally on television, but remember that some of Mr. Rogers’ original viewers witnessed the assassination of President Kennedy.
- Respect for experts. Mr. Rogers developed his approach to communication by working closely with child psychologists. He put an immense amount of work into understanding his audience, and making sure that they understood him.
- Authenticity. Mr. Rogers was largely the same person off-camera as he was on- camera. He did not so much cultivate an image as he cultivated the virtues, and found that an image had grown naturally from them.
- Love. Mr. Rogers constantly emphasized the importance of “neighborhood expression[s] of care.”
To wit, it appears that Mr. Rogers violently punished the Devil with peace and love. The weapons of his warfare were not carnal (2 Cor. 10:4). While I don’t exactly have a direct line to Screwtape or his associates, it seems clear to me that, while Mr. Rodgers didn’t exactly win children to Christ, he did accomplish his Christian objective – to express unconditional love for them – in most engagements. He also left us plans, so we can start producing weapons like his.
His values expressed themselves in other ways as well. For example, Mr. Rogers replied to every letter he ever received from his fans, some of whom still have them. Given his popularity, that would suggest that he spent much of his life personally responding to mail from those who appreciated him.
He also signaled to us that there is a way to advance the churchmanship of secular mass media! Rather than imitate secular media forms, he innovated a Christian form of his own. While he did not invent a new platform, he did gut and modify an existing one to suit a higher purpose. Finally, and most importantly, Mr. Rogers was never involved in a single scandal. He was so clean that people had to make them all up.
For his Christian manner of life; for breaking all the rules of “successful” programming; and for producing what I regard as a perfect example of Alternative Christian Media, Mr. Rogers is Anglo-Catholic of the week.