New Mister Rogers Film Downplays His Radical Edge: 'His Work Was Deeply Political'

Michael Long, expert on the philosophy of Mister Rogers, talks about “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

Fred Rogers.
Photo Credit: c/o Religion Dispatches

Morgan Neville's new documentary "Won't You be My Neighbor?" is a hagiography. In many ways, how can it not be? Over the course of almost five decades Fred Rogers dedicated his life to helping children and making the world a better place. His "Neighborhood of Make-Believe" was a wonderful place where all people, regardless of their background, felt welcome and valued. The Fred Rogers depicted in "Won't You be My Neighbor" is almost perfect. But that goodness was also accompanied by a fierce and relentless political and social vision of a just and humane society. Fred Rogers was more than a moral compass and role-model: He was a philosopher and activist who possessed a well-defined political ideology. "Won't You be My Neighbor?" pays too little attention to that most important part of Fred Rogers' life and wisdom.

What would Mister Rogers say and do about the Trump administration stealing children away from the families of refugees and immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border? How did he navigate questions of race and gay sexuality on his TV show "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood?" How did Mister Rogers reconcile being a Republican with opposing many of the major policy positions of the Republican presidents from Nixon to George W. Bush?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Michael Long, a professor of religious studies and peace and conflict studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. Long is the author of the 2015 book "Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers."

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How did Morgan Neville's new documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" make you feel?

I felt as if I belonged again. Every time I watch Fred Rogers interact with children or adults, he always offers a reassuring voice, that we belong. We belong to ourselves, we belong to our neighbors, and it's really that sense of belonging, I think, that he wants to communicate. Not only that, we're lovable and we're capable of loving. Those are the two main themes that always come out in Rogers: Belonging is really important in a world that's packed with chaos. I also had this really beautiful model before me, so I felt inspired.

I felt inspired when I saw Rogers interact with children with special needs.

I also felt a deep sense of frustration because Rogers and his work are deeply political. He's constantly responding to political crises and to economic crises in his program. The documentary did not focus enough on that part of Rogers' life.

There were glimpses of his politics when he appeared before the United States Senate. Rogers also took a stand against the Vietnam War during that first week of his show in 1968 when it went national. The first week, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" went national. We also got the sense at another point here and there in the documentary that Rogers devoted his life to creating this alternative political society that was like what Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of, the beloved community. In many ways, what Rogers did in his program was to make the beloved community a model for children and adults. I believe that the documentary really didn't begin to unpack that as clearly as it could have. The documentary focused on feelings and psychology. They focus on psychology. They focus on child development. Obviously, that is omnipresent in Roger's work, but at the same time a beautiful political vision also pervades his work too. I think when we exclude that part of his work, we take the guts out of what he was doing. Fred Rogers was modeling an entirely different way of living, politically, socially and economically.

You are one of the world's foremost — if not only — expert on Fred Rogers' philosophy and politics. I saw the movie with a friend and everyone was crying at the end. It is that moving. But because I have read your work I kept wanting to learn more about Fred Rogers' internal life and to see his radical politics treated more seriously.  

I had that reaction too. I think that the documentary skims the surface when addressing the fuel of Rogers' work. He believed in and practiced a theology where God resides in each and every person. There's a "divine light," and Rogers actually used that language.

There is the divine spark, he said, in each and every person, and because that spark is there, there's this incredible responsibility that we have as individuals to help that spark shine out from us but also to recognize that spark in everybody around us. Why is everybody capable of loving and why is everyone to be loved? For Rogers, the ultimate answer is because each person has the divine spark within him or her. Those Quaker themes run through Rogers' work. The other part of his message is really founded in his vision of God the creator and Jesus.

Rogers had this belief that Jesus is the Prince of Peace and that those who follow Jesus should really be peacemakers. Rogers took those words of Jesus literally. "Blessed are the peacemakers," he believed. He also really believed the Hebrew prophets who extolled those who would transformed their swords into plowshares. He also has this sense that God is relentless.

Rogers has this deep abiding belief that God never gives up on everyone and he gets this image through the parables Jesus communicated about a woman who went searching for a coin, about a shepherd who went searching for a lost sheep, leaving 99 others behind. For Rogers, that's who God is. God is the shepherd who goes out looking for that sheep and never ever gives up. That's striking because people who come out of Rogers' Christian tradition believe that God gives up on people eventually because God created people with free will.

It's people's decision to do what they want to do in their life, and if they end up in heaven, it's their responsibility. Rogers has this deep sense that God radically accepts and loves all of us without any conditions — including the condition of time.

Of course, there are likely hundreds of hours of footage we did not see in "Won't You be My Neighbor?" We did not see much of Fred Rogers' childhood in the documentary. How was he informed by his upbringing and early life experiences?  

Fred was made fun of when he was a child. They called him "Fat Freddy." It doesn't get unpacked in the documentary. It's so sad because fuel was his theology and his childhood. When he was a little boy, Rogers was shy.

He was overweight and he was protected a lot by his parents. It seemed as if they were overly protective. Lindbergh's baby was kidnapped and wealthy parents in the United States developed a fear that somebody would kidnap their babies in order to get a ransom. It seems as if Rogers’ parents were part of that fear at that time. They were very protective of Rogers as he was also a child who was also not well. He suffered from allergies. He is overweight. He is driven to school by George Allen, who's an African-American man who was hired by the Rogers family to help out with rearing Fred and doing some chores around the house and acting as a family chauffeur too.

George Allen is a remarkable man who plays a really formative role in Rogers' life. But one day Allen can't make it and Fred has to walk home by himself. As Fred tells the story, he's walking home and he hears this group of boys behind him start to yell, “Hey, fat Freddie, we are going to get you.” Rogers gets, as you might imagine, really scared, that he just takes off. Finally, Rogers makes it into the house of a neighbor and she takes him in and she comforts him. His neighbors told him not to mind the kids chasing him.

When he tells the story later in life, he explains that he was angry that they couldn't see behind his fatness to who he really is. Rogers takes this formative story and makes it into a story about children and adults who didn't see beyond what was outside him, to what Rogers essentially called the essence awesome. What is invisible to the eye. This becomes one of his favorite quotations. That quotation that he draws from a little print right comes from this story, of Rogers as an overweight boy, was ridiculed by boys and then told by adults not to mind them.

He did mind, and Rogers spent the rest of his life on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" assuring children that no matter what they look like, no matter who they were, no matter where they came from, deep within them was something that was lovable and capable of loving.

What are your thoughts on how the documentary dealt with how Rogers' show treated issues of race and civil rights?

As you might imagine, they didn't tell the whole story about Rogers and race nor did they tell the story about Rogers and gay sexuality. I'm a huge fan of Francois Clemmons because he's spoken openly and honestly about his troubles with Fred and about his love for Fred Rogers. But there's a lot more than what was depicted with Clemmons. On the issue of Rogers and race, it is important to note how he came out of a background where whites treated African-Americans paternalistically. I believe he got this model from his parents and how they treated George Allen.

That's the model Fred saw when he went to Rollins College in Florida where he became the head of their race relations committee. I think it's possible to make the case that Rogers grew away from that model a bit when he started to develop his TV program. In 1968 as the program begins to take off, Rogers invites Mrs. Sandra, who's an African-American teacher, into his home and she brings an additional group of students and they sit around Fred's dining room table in this television neighborhood. Roger's message in 1968 when there is all sorts of tumult around civil rights and the color line is that in his Neighborhood of Make-Believe, blacks and whites live together, work together and study together.

Then in August 1968, not long after King was assassinated, Rogers features Officer Clemmons. Now it is an African-American police officer who's coming into children's television during a time when African-Americans who are on television are usually depicted as rioting in the inner cities. Then Rogers pushes this even further, when he and Officer Clemmons sit in the wading pool. In that image, we get a sense that Rogers is communicating peace and a belief in racial integration.

Clemmons also encouraged Rogers to depict an interracial relationship on the show. Clemmons said, "Why don't you cast me, Francois Clemmons and Lady Evelyn in a relationship?"

This is one of the ideas that Rogers listened to, but he just didn't act on it. Clemmons has a sense that Rogers feared backlash. He pushes the envelope one more time in 1975 when there is a black mayor in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and in effect, she’s equal in political status to King Friday.

This is some 14 years before an African-American woman becomes a mayor of at least a minor city in the United States. She also has a white man as her assistant.

What about how Rogers dealt with gay rights?

On the issue of Fred Rogers and gay sexuality, the documentarian [Morgan] Neville left out quite a bit. Sure, he interviewed Francois Clemmons and he shows Clemmons talking about Rogers, saying that Clemmons has to stop going to a gay bar in Pittsburgh or that he would fire Clemmons. There's a lot more information there that we didn't get. A key piece of information is that during the meeting when Rogers instructed Clemmons to stop going to a gay bar, he also told Clemmons that sometimes gay men put their sexuality on the back burner and try to live out their sexual creativity in other ways outside of gay sex. Sometimes gay men get married.

Clemmons takes that message as advice from Fred to get married to a woman. That's exactly what Clemmons did. He thought so highly of Rogers' advice that he got married to a woman who was in love with him. Needless to say, the marriage tanked after a year and Francois went through sheer hell because of that advice. There's another part of that meeting that didn't get addressed, and during that meeting, Francois breaks down and sobs because Fred has discovered that he is gay and Fred is taking this hard line. According to Francois, Fred Rogers went over and cradled Francois in his arms and rocked him back and forth as he talked with him about the possibility of getting married.

Then Fred suggests if you're going to live a gay life, do it in a long-term, monogamous relationship. Of course, Francois doesn’t follow that advice either, and he brings his gay friends and lovers to the studio. He does have the sense that Fred accepts them and that Fred has accepted Francois. He believes that Fred eventually came around to embracing all of who he was, but there was a time when Francois believed that Rogers did not like him for who he was.

He thought that Rogers wasn't true to his message at a certain point when he was with Francois. Now, there's another interesting angle here. For instance, after Francois came out, he continued to appear on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" wearing an earring as a type of gay affect. Rogers asked him to take off the earring so there wouldn't be somebody who is gay on the program. Rogers made sure that the camera angle was such so that Francois's profile didn't even show the ear where the ring had been to be careful that viewers had no hint that Francois was gay.

What was Fred Rogers’ political affiliation? How did it manifest on the show and the other parts of his public life?

This part of the documentary really irritated me, and again, I want to emphasize that I love so much of the documentary, but there were key parts that just rubbed me wrong way. One part was when they announced Rogers was a lifelong Republican. I wanted to stand up from my seat at that point and shout, “Yeah, but Rogers was a really lousy Republican.” Rogers was probably one of the worst Republicans in the latter half of the 20th century and early part of this century. It makes sense from watching the documentary, but you have to connect the dots. Richard Nixon, a Republican president, continued the Vietnam War. Rogers was sharply opposed to the Vietnam War. Richard Nixon, a Republican president, favored cutting funds for PBS. Rogers, as we saw in the documentary, stood against this Republican president and fought for the safeguarding of the PBS funds.

Reagan's administration studies poverty and makes an announcement that hunger is not widespread in the United States. Moreover, that hunger among children is not widespread in the United States. Rogers disagrees with Reagan and develops episodes in which he shows hunger in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. It's full of hungry goats and people in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe have a responsibility, Rogers teaches, to feed those who are hungry and to learn how to raise their own crop to avoid being hungry. Who supports this anti-hunger measure? King Friday, who as the voice of Fred Rogers is an anti-Reagan figure.

Reagan also presided over a nuclear arms buildup. Roger opposed that, and he developed this really interesting theory in which King Friday believed some neighboring community is building weapons and he wants to build one more weapon than they are. King Friday takes money from a program that's supposed to provide pianos to local schools. He takes it from a social education program to fund a military buildup.

In the end of that series, King Friday learns that all these weapons in the neighboring community aren't weapons at all. What there really are, are pieces to build a bridge between communities. Friday ends up looking like a bumbling idiot. He apologizes for his weapons buildup and then he promises to provide music education to all schools in the neighborhood. It's a beautiful story, but that's another example of Rogers using King Friday to be an anti-figure to a Republican president. OK, during the George H. W. Bush years Rogers takes a public stand against the Persian Gulf War. He says "war is a form of child abuse." He just says this flat out, and he actually lobbies Congress to pass legislation that would allow soldiers to not deploy if their children would not have a parent at home.

During George W. Bush's era, he stands against the execution of the War on Terror.

Rogers believed deep down in his soul that war is fundamentally opposed not only to all of us, but especially to the safe and secure development of children, so he takes that on as well. Now to be fair, he takes on Democratic presidents as well. I would have the same concerns if the documentary said that Rogers was a lifelong Democrat. He wasn't a lifelong Democrat. He wasn't a lifelong Republican in any real significant substantive sense. He was, at last, a man who was committed to the political vision of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, a place marked by peace, racial reconciliation and economic justice, come hell or high water.

Given his deep love of children and the innocent, what do you think Fred Rogers would say about the immigrant and refugee children being stolen from their families by Donald Trump and his immigration storm troopers? What would he do?

Well, we can't say what Fred Rogers would do because he is deceased, but we can say this about Rogers and the separation of parents from their children. Fred Rogers rarely told this story and it's a very personal story, but he taught it a couple of times in public. When Rogers and Joanne were living in Canada, they had to take one of their sons to a hospital for surgery. They did, and when they arrived at the hospital, medical staff came out to greet them and at that point the staff took their son away from the Rogers. As they took the son away, I think it was Jim, but I'm not quite sure, the son started screaming unbelievably and they couldn't console him.

Rogers and Joanne were simply heartbroken. That son suffered from some emotional psychological issues as he developed through childhood into his teenage years. Rogers always attributed those problems to that act of separation in the hospital. He says there's nothing more devastating to children than being yanked from their parents' arms and being separated from those who love them and taken into a place of uncertainty, a place where they don't know whether they'll be loved, whether they will be safe, whether they will be secure. When that happens, all hell breaks loose. Rogers pointed to that story when he talked about the need to keep soldier parents and their children together, and I can't imagine that story wouldn't come to mind if he were here today looking at the way the Trump administration is separating children from their parents in the immigration crisis.

I have a deep feeling of regret that Fred Rogers isn't with us anymore, especially in these political times when we see so much deception coming from our political leaders. When we see the separation of children from their parents who are coming to the United States looking for a Neighborhood of Make-Believe. When we see policies that are beating down the poor while the rich are getting richer. When we see everybody on the margins seeming to being pushed a little farther away. I regret that he's not here to help us find a Neighborhood of Make-Believe in this political hell.

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Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Follow him on Twitter.