American religious historian Margaret Bendroth is not a fan of Mr. Rogers. She calls herself a “Mr. Rogers heretic, one of the unholy few who did not enjoy his television and actively discouraged my children from watching it.”
In a recent piece at the blog Righting America, Bendroth roots Rogers’s understanding of children and family in twentieth-century mainline Protestantism, the topic of her book Growing Up Protestant: Parents, Children ,and Mainline Churches.
Here is a taste:
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 Bod, it 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.
Read the entire piece here.