Day 6

How Mister Rogers' religious beliefs shaped his radical teachings on race and sexuality

The trailer for the Fred Rogers biopic, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, sent many people on trips down memory lane. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg remembers him as a devoutly religious person whose radical theology put him well ahead of his time.

'Mister Rogers wasn't afraid to say true things,' says Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

Fred Rogers was the host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood for more than three decades. (Jim Judkis/Focus Features )
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When the trailer for the Fred Rogers biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood dropped on Monday, it sent viewers on a trip down memory lane.

"Fred Rogers was an inspiration and a hero; Back then, life was simpler, people were kinder, and Fred Rogers personified all that was good in people. I miss him," wrote one Twitter user.

For Rabbi Dayna Ruttenberg, it was a reminder of how committed the devoutly religious Presbyterian minister was to progressive politics.

"I'm just glad when people bring him back because he did such a powerful thing. He instilled a feeling of love and safety and well-being and concern into generations of children," she told Day 6.

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which aired from 1968 until 2001, tackled everything from war to sexuality in a child-friendly format.

Those messages, she says, are needed today more than ever.

"There's a movement towards othering people, towards treating people as instruments … this is a very intense time of not caring about people's humanity for their own humanity but rather sort of, 'Are you useful to my purposes or not?'" Ruttenberg said.

Ruttenberg shared some of her favourite moments from the show.

Vietnam War

The very first episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood hit TVs across the U.S. on Feb. 19, 1968.

The episode didn't shy away from the contentious Vietnam War that started more than a decade earlier.

Viewers discovered that King Friday, one of the show's regular cast of puppet characters, was establishing a border guard in his make-believe kingdom, and later in the week, that he was building a border wall.

It was an effort to explain how groups are set apart from each other in relation to the ongoing war.

"He was trying to address some of that us-and-them, inside-outside, mentality that was really relevant as the Vietnam War was raging on," Ruttenberg recalled.

Segregation

One of the most powerful episodes, from Ruttenberg's perspective, tackled segregation in swimming pools.

Francois Clemmons, a recurring visitor to Mister Rogers' neighbourhood, was a black police officer. In a 1969 episode, Rogers invites Clemmons to sit by the pool.

"He just had Officer Clemmons come over — and Officer Clemmons was hot because it was a hot day — and they both decided to take off their shoes and socks and to put their feet in the kiddie pool," Ruttenberg said.

"Mr. Rogers helped to wash Officer Clemmons' feet."

At a time when the issue of racial segregation divided America, Ruttenberg says the episode sent a message that white feet and black feet could "share space in the water."

Sexual orientation

Behind the scenes, Rogers went out of his way to protect Clemmons. 

When Clemmons, who is gay, visited an LGBT-friendly bar, Rogers implored him to not return.

According to Ruttenberg, it wasn't about asking Clemmons to deny his sexuality, but rather keep him safe. 

Francois Clemmons appeared on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood from 1968 until 1993. (Noam Galai/Getty Images for Nantucket Film Festival)

"That's certainly a complicated ask to make of anybody at anytime, but in that historical moment the people who were not working in public television for children were definitely getting fired for being outed," Ruttenberg said.

And even though there's no evidence he was anything but monogamous in his marriage to his wife, the Rabbi adds, he acknowledged being attracted to both men and women, according to a 2018 biography citing a close family friend.

"Whether it's his commitment to radical truth or whether it was his own understanding of himself ... for him, gay rights wasn't theoretical, I'll put it that way," she said.


To hear more from Rabbi Dayna Ruttenberg, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.

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