The Countercultural Moral Example of Fred Rogers
By David Baggett | Plus, The Beneficial Impact of Christianity
The single greatest contribution of Jesus' kingdom proclamation was the concept that God loved his creation and especially human beings. . . . [I]n the pre-Christian world the gods were indifferent to humanity. Indeed, sometimes the gods were jealous of humans. Humans feared the gods and tried to placate them, even bribe them. The Greco-Roman gods were jealous, petty, vengeful, easily offended, and lustful. The essence of these gods was power and immortality. But Christians proclaimed that "God is love" and that God sent his Son to bring reconciliation between God and humanity. Ancient pagans had never heard of such a thing. The idea that God actually loved them and was willing to send his Son to serve humanity, even die for humanity, was almost incomprehensible.
The apostles of Jesus applied their Master's teachings to the pagan world they encountered as they traveled and evangelized. Perhaps no one captured the essence of the implications of Jesus' thought better than the Apostle Paul, who wrote in a widely circulated letter: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). This provocative declaration, with which pagan culture strongly disagreed at every point, altered human culture for the better in ways never seen. The gospel of Jesus, spread throughout the world, changed the world.
History bears witness to the positive impact that the ministry of Jesus and the continuing ministry of his Church have had on human society and culture. The very pagan, corrupt police state known as the Roman Empire was transformed. Polytheism all but disappeared. Crucifixion and the cruel gladiator games were ended. Articulation, promotion, and justification of racism disappeared. The revolutionary Christian message of brotherhood and equality (see Gal. 3:28) swept the Roman world and all of the West. The Greek and Roman empires were Christianized, so was Europe. Over the next millennium, there were no great philosophers or Christian theologians arguing for racism, providing justifications for it, or advocating slavery (i.e., not until the "enlightenment"). There were no medieval Aristotles promoting eugenics or infanticide. The Apostle Paul's message of "neither Jew nor Greek" had taken hold, and widespread racism receded.
Conditions for slaves, children, and women greatly improved. Slavery itself was eventually abolished. Egalitarian principles and human rights became the norm in all parts of the world where the Christian faith was significantly influential. Christians protected the unwanted, the sick, and the weak. They rescued infants, often either deformed or female, who had been cast out. They founded schools, promoted literacy, established universities and advanced science. Without Jesus and his Church, the world would look nothing like it does today.
— Paul Copan and Charles Taliaferro, eds., The Naturalness of Belief: New Essays on Theism’s Rationality (Lexington Books, 2019), 207, 208.
The Countercultural Moral Example of Fred Rogers
by David Baggett
What’s most important is often hidden because of its simplicity and familiarity. So easily we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful. But once in a while we encounter a person able to open our eyes and capture our imagination, making us aware of possibilities we had discounted, reminding us of what is truly important. For me and many others, the amiable, cardigan-clad, soft-spoken Fred Rogers is an example of that kind of person. In 1968 when his children’s show went national, I was in his original demographic of 2 to 5 years olds, and I still have vivid memories of watching him from my earliest childhood. He was among my first teachers. Time went on and I forgot about him for a spell; but the longer I’ve lived, the more I’ve come to see his ongoing relevance. We need him again; it’s not just children he had to teach, but all of us.
I was reminded of this a few years ago when the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? came out. Now, my specialization is the moral argument for God’s existence, and watching the documentary about him made me realize that so much of what he did and stood for is, in its own inimitable way, actually at the heart of the moral apologetic enterprise.
But what I saw after the documentary was just as amazing: grown men and women openly weeping. Something had touched a chord, had moved them, had reminded them of what they already knew or had once known but that we too easily forget. The dignity and value of persons as persons, the centrality of love to the human experience, the daily investment of care Fred made in the most impressionable, the way he touched both heads and hearts, his unyielding trust in God’s goodness and grace, the empathy he cultivated for the suffering—that we intuitively know in our heart of hearts to be the only right response. There was, quite frankly, something palpably transcendent about watching the documentary, something so obviously true and good; it was transportive, inspiring, beautiful.
Yet all too rare; for, sadly, so often, we as Christians are in lock step with culture rather than profoundly countercultural like Fred was. We enter the fray of social media and exhibit the same sorts of lamentable tendencies—scorched earth debates, divisive partisanship, even apologetics done as if it were more about winning arguments than people, or worse. We so easily forget that the best apologetic for the truth claims of Christ has to be embodied, has to be tangibly demonstrated by how we live our lives. It has to be us.
Especially in our cultural moment, rife with tendentious conflicts in which political and even religious discourse resorts to resounding zingers, pithy sound bites, and self-aggrandizing mic drops, we need more people like Fred to build bridges rather than burn them, to foster genuine dialogue, to speak truth in love—someone with a singular vision of kindness.
Truth be told, orthodox theology and smart apologetics without emotional intelligence ring hollow at best, pernicious at worst. As an ordained Presbyterian minister, Fred knew this, and he recognized that children need to learn how to navigate their negative emotions; you see, as a boy he had been bullied; it made him both sad and mad, and he was told not to let it bother him. But of course it bothered him, and there was nothing wrong with that. Making it mentionable helped make it manageable, he liked to say. This is why his television program, which was not mere entertainment, but essentially a classroom, focused more on handling the inner drama of a child’s emotional life than teaching them the ABC’s.
But here’s a little secret that Fred knew: it’s not just kids who need to learn how to navigate their negative emotions. It’s all of us. When online Christian apologists are pugnacious and obnoxious, when our politicians behave like adolescents, when almost every discussion ends up in a fight filled with invective and insult, we’ve got a problem. Strong conviction without tempering with humility and gentleness is a recipe for disaster. For the most strident political partisans, brain research reveals, talking about politics fires up the emotional parts of their brain the most. There’s nothing wrong with passion, but visceral passion motivated by indulging negative emotions leads to divisiveness, depersonalization, demonization. A recent study in our country revealed that a full fifth of Republicans and Democrats agree with the statement that their political adversaries “lack the traits to be considered fully human—they behave like animals.” We’re not paying heed to Mister Rogers, and we of all people as Christian need to.
Now some people, maybe some of you, have the idea that Fred was simple, uncomplicated, naïve, Pollyannish, weak, best relegated to the past. But in truth he wasn’t any of those things. By God’s grace he was strong, recognizing that our neighbors we’re called to love may not be easy to love, that our negative emotions aren’t always easy to navigate, that loving others as we ought is hard work sometimes. But he was willing to put in the work—be it with a problem student, a rebellious teenager, an unkind colleague. He’s as relevant as ever because truth doesn’t change.
The most important command we’ve been given is to love God with all of our heart and soul, mind and strength, and then, intimately tied to that, our neighbor as ourselves. Learning to love our neighbor involves nothing less than learning to see God in our neighbor and our neighbor in God. Every person we encounter is someone for whom Jesus died. A low view of other people is often caused by a low view of God. Fred had a high view of God, and a corresponding high view of people. In fact, he liked to say, “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” We’re all made in God’s image, but each one of us is also unique, one-of-a-kind, so Fred would have also liked Marilyn Robinson’s words: “Any human face is a claim on you, because you can't help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it.”
Although Fred aspired only to be a good neighbor, he eventually became a surrogate father to us all. He is a model for us all to emulate—in showing us what goodness looks like, what love takes, and in making goodness attractive.
— David Baggett is the author or editor of about fifteen books, most recently The Moral Argument: A History, with Jerry Walls. Starting in the fall of 2020 he and his wife will be teaching at Houston Baptist University.
*Unless otherwise noted, descriptions are those provided by the publisher, sometimes edited for brevity.
Despite its name, “naturalism” as a world-view turns out to be rather unnatural in its strict and more consistent form of materialism and determinism. This is why a number of naturalists opt for a broadened version that includes objective moral values, intrinsic human dignity, consciousness, beauty, personal agency, and the like. But in doing so, broad naturalism begins to look more like theism. As many strict naturalists recognize, broad naturalism must borrow from the metaphysical resources of a theistic world-view, in which such features are very natural, commonsensical, and quite “at home” in a theistic framework.
The Naturalness of Belief begins with a naturalistic philosopher’s own perspective of naturalism and naturalness. The remaining chapters take a multifaceted approach in showing theism’s naturalness and greater explanatory power. They examine not only rational reasons for theism’s ability to account for consciousness, intentionality, beauty, human dignity, free will, rationality, and knowledge; they also look at commonsensical, existential, psychological, and cultural reasons—in addition to the insights of the cognitive science of religion.
Edited by Paul Copan and Charles Taliaferro
Contributions by Clifford Williams; Paul C. Vitz; Aku Visala; Charles Taliaferro; James S. Spiegel; Ronald Scott Smith; Graham Oppy; J. P. Moreland; Angus Menuge; Jonathan J. Loose; Jeremiah J. Johnston; Matthew Flannagan; Paul Copan; Justin L. Barrett and Robert Larmer
The Unnaturalness of Naturalism?
1. Naturalism and Naturalness: A Naturalist’s Perspective
2. Is Naturalism Natural?
3. The Contraction and Expansion of Naturalism and the Theistic Challenge
4. Taking Philosophical Naturalism Seriously
R. Scott Smith
Theistic Belief, Science, and Naturalism
5. In What Sense Might Religion Be Natural?
Justin Barrett and Aku Visala
6. Science, Methodological Naturalism, and Question-Begging
Axiology and Naturalism
7. Alienating Humanity: How Evolutionary Ethics Undermines Human Rights
8. Divine Commands, Duties, and Euthyphro: Theism and Naturalist Misunderstandings
9. Beauty: A Troubling Reality for the Scientific Naturalist
R. Douglas Geivett and James Spiegel
Naturalism and Existential Considerations
10. Existential Arguments for Theistic Belief
11. Psychological Factors Contributing to Atheism: Bad Father Relationships and Just Bad Relationships as in Autistic Spectrum Disorders
Paul C. Vitz
12. The Cultural Implications of Theism versus Naturalism
Paul Copan and Jeremiah J. Johnston
Naturalism, Freedom, and Immortality
13. Theism, Robust Naturalism, and Robust Libertarian Free Will
14. Naturalism, Theism, and Afterlife Beliefs
“This fine new book on naturalism and theism offers new perspectives on this debate from a wide-ranging set of perspectives, ranging from morality to aesthetics to psychology and philosophy of mind. The essays are first-rate, and the arguments presented are powerful. This book ought to unsettle those who take a naturalistic worldview as somehow just a "common sense" view that is supported by science. Naturalism turns out to be a profoundly unnatural view of reality.”
— C. Stephen Evans, university professor of philosophy and humanities, Baylor University
“These fourteen original, cutting-edge essays are an admirable contribution to one of the most important questions of our time: is theism or naturalism the more natural, fitting worldview? For anyone interested in that question, this book is a must-read.”
— Stephen T. Davis, Claremont McKenna College
Receive original articles by leading Christian scholars every month when you subscribe to the Worldview Bulletin newsletter. For a limited time, receive a year’s worth of equipping for only $3.75 per month, delivered directly to your inbox.