Righting America

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Mr. Rogers Wasn’t Pro-Family (and That’s a Good Thing) | Righting America

by Margaret Bendroth

Left: Black and white photo of Mr. Rogers on the TV on a mattress tying his sneaker.
Right: Colored photo of Mr. Rogers on the TV putting on his beige sports jacket next to a green plant and picture frame.
Two images from the Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood archive at the University of Pittsburgh, as featured in Library Video Magazine (vol. 2, no. 1) and the December 1987 issue of American Libraries. The image on the left is from Mr. Rogers’ first show. via American Libraries on Flickr

Margaret Bendroth is executive director of the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston, and a historian of American religion. Her books include Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present (Yale 1993)Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism (Illinois 2003), co-edited with Virginia Brereton; and, The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past (UNC 2015).

Who doesn’t like Mr. Rogers?  Anything less than adulation is almost unseemly these days, as we’re in the thick of movies, documentaries, and articles about this legendarily kind and simple man, beloved by children and parents alike.

Well, most parents. I admit, I am a Mr. Rogers heretic, one of the unholy few who did not enjoy his television program and actively discouraged my children from watching it. My bad attitude wasn’t personal. I didn’t like “Sesame Street” all that much either. Let’s just say I have an active horror of catchy jingles, especially those pertaining to numbers, alphabets, and feelings. In the case of Mr. Rogers, it was probably his puppet sidekick Henrietta Pussycat who put me over the edge. That whiny meow-meow-meow. I didn’t want it in my head.

Yet I deeply appreciate Mr. Rogers, perhaps not as a parent with a low tolerance for sing-songy music, but definitely as a historian. This is by way of Growing Up Protestant: Parents, Children, and Mainline Churches, a book I wrote now nearly twenty years ago. This non-best-seller was a heavily-footnoted narrative of a century and a half of religious advice literature to liberal parents, starting with Congregational theologian Horace Bushnell and his landmark book Christian Nurture (1847). Bushnell was one of the first to construct a practical theology of childrearing, based on the principle that children learn to love God through the example of loving parents in a Christian home. 

That fairly benign idea ran directly counter to the reigning assumptions of Bushnell’s day, the belief that children were either too innocent or too desperately evil for a genuine Christian faith. According to the reigning evangelical paradigm, the best that godly parents could do was keep them in a holding pattern until they were old enough for an intelligent conversion, the mysterious “age of accountability.” To Bushnell this was sanctified child abuse. He insisted that faith has no age limits, that even a very young child can have an authentic, though age appropriate, encounter with God. Just like the physical body, he said, the soul developed by “imperceptible gradations” toward maturity.

Mr. Rogers, like generations of mainline Protestants, was an heir of Bushnell. His quiet, focused demeanor was not just a personality trait—it was a theological statement, demonstrating an instinctive respect for children as full human beings in their own right, not simply miniature adults-in-waiting. Even the careful explorations of his “neighborhood” drew from Bushnell’s belief that Christian parenting involved far more than walling children off from evil.  Christian nurture required a community that made moral sense. It meant caring about other people’s children, not just one’s own.

Of course, the mainline ethic got silly and sappy sometimes, especially when religious professionals started turning it into (useless) advice literature. “Christian nurture” easily lent itself to guilt-tripping—no parent can or should be a stand-in for God—and it elevated niceness into an ersatz spiritual virtue. Moreover, as many of us discover along the way, the power of the silent example is not enough: children need, want, and deserve some dogma, even if only to facilitate a healthy rebellion. 

I was working on Growing Up Protestant in the 1990s, at about the same time evangelicals were staking their claim to be “pro-family.” The historical irony was hard to swallow. Up until James Dobson came on the scene, evangelicals had little of substance to say about family, much less a theology of Christian child-rearing. They were the heirs of fundamentalists like John R. Rice and Bill Gothard, who insisted that children were sinful, the world was a looming danger, and individual conversion the only way to safety.  

Yet as I researched my way through books like  God, The Rod, and Your Child’s Bodit struck me that me that despite the hairy authoritarian advice about “daring to discipline,” evangelical child-rearing advice literature was more Bushnellian than not. Even God, The Rod, and Your Child’s Bod was really an argument for the primacy of the “Christian home,” a place “where parents live the Christian life and so practice the presence of Christ that children grow up to naturally accept God as the most important fact in life.” Evangelicals were in effect cannibalizing mainline ideas (possibly in part because the mainline was departing from this tradition in the 1970s and 1980s), and recirculating them with a moralistic, fortress-mentality gloss.

Perhaps that’s why Mr. Rogers traveled under the radar for so long. He was not “pro-family” in the narrow evangelical culture-wars sense of the word, where the family is a stand-in for American moral decline. He loved and respected children, and modeled an ethic of care that extended beyond their immediate families to the world they would one day inherit—which is about as “pro-family” as you can get. On that, as my good friend Henrietta Pussycat would say, the two of us could not meow-meow-meow-agree-meow more.