Fred Rogers was a religious man and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, never explicitly a show about faith, was profoundly informed by its host’s beliefs. Rogers was not just Christian. His faith was specific. He was a Presbyterian, a product of a particularly chilly strain of German and Scottish protestantism. If Mister Rogers’ openness to emotional dialogue and experience feels radical, considered in the context of Fred Rogers’ church, it’s borderline unimaginable.
So, how did a fiercely religious minister emerging from a stoic seminary — the man was ordained specifically to minister to children using television — become a non-denominational saint, an avatar for openness and unconditional love? To understand that, it’s critical to understand both Fred’s childhood in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he grew up rich, overweight, and insecure, and his understanding of scripture, which was based on a strict and generous reading of the imperatives contained in the New Testament.
Fred Rogers did not try to convert American children to Presbyterianism, but he did try to model the behavior of a savior he believed had died for his sins. He hoped that by doing this he could inspire good behaviors, if not religious behaviors. He believed that religious behavior — the sort of rigorous goodness he demanded from himself — could broaden mind and change the world for the better. He believed that the meek would inherit the Earth and, as a minister to children, he was right.
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On the third episode of Fatherly‘s longform podcast Finding Fred, host Carvell Wallace grapples with Fred’s faith and what it means to practice grace while accepting the brokenness of human beings.