One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)
Fred Rogers had a vision for a children’s television show that would “make goodness attractive.” But not just any “goodness.” Rogers was convinced that he could make the goodness of Christ and the gospel winsome to the world.
Due to the public funding of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Rogers couldn’t be explicit with the gospel message on-air. But he was convinced that wasn’t necessary. Instead of preaching the gospel explicitly from his television pulpit, Rogers created a show that consistently modeled Christ-like character and, most prominently, loved every neighbor as himself. As his friend, Reverend George Wirth, said, “Fred’s theology was love your neighbor as you love yourself.” And this was the ultimate theme that came through in the thirty-plus year run of Neighborhood.
The name of the show itself and Rogers’s daily “Hello neighbor” greeting to his television audience served to set the stage for what he hoped to communicate in his entire television ministry. Throughout the show, there were countless examples of Rogers displaying what at the time seemed like radical displays of Christ-like love to the overlooked and the marginalized. In one episode in 1969, during the heat of racial tensions across America, Rogers and a black man washed their feet together on screen. In another episode, Rogers took a significant amount of time to patiently sing a song with a disabled boy in a wheelchair. And of course, in each of the show’s 912 episodes, Rogers showed children their inherent God-given dignity, treating them as important and valued as adults. To Fred Rogers, the idea that everyone has inherent dignity was obvious; if you said otherwise, for him, “you might as well go against the fundamentals of Christianity.”
By loving every neighbor in the Neighborhood as himself and treating everyone with the utmost dignity, Fred Rogers modeled the gospel to millions of children every day, and in so doing, created one of the most beloved cultural goods of the twentieth century. In Rogers, we find an example to follow in our own efforts to influence culture for the sake of the gospel. While it may not be possible or effective to preach the gospel explicitly through our work, all of us are called to demonstrate Christ-like character and make the goodness of Jesus attractive to those around us. This truth significantly influenced what Rogers created on-air; and as we will see next week, Rogers’s faith also impacted how he went about his work.