America needs Mister Rogers. Even though I haven’t seen the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, I will see it this Thanksgiving weekend. From what I’ve read, the film does a remarkable job of capturing this remarkable man who was beloved by so many and whose lessons, delivered with a disarming humility, are lessons that we need to take to heart now even more than we did during his lifetime.
Very much like Jesus, who famously invited the little children to come to him, and said to the adults around them, do not forbid them, Mr. Rogers both spoke to children and spoke through them to our adult culture and society. Many people think that his primary message was one of promoting civility. I think it’s deeper than that.
As long as we’re speaking about civility, let’s focus for a moment on what civility is and what it is not. Do you remember this famous comment from Hillary Clinton?
“You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about.” She then went on to assert that only when Democrats win back Congress, can “civility start again.” I wish she had tried that bitter nonsense in front of Mr. Rogers. I’d love to hear his gentle rebuff.
Civility can be artificial, as it often is in the places like the floor of the United States Senate. The appearance of kindness and decorum can be a cynical mask for contempt. That’s surely not what Fred Rogers wanted to teach us.
I believe that his deeper message than civility is respect. If someone respects the person he is speaking with or about, civility will naturally occur, and it will be genuine, not artificial. Respect begins with a recognition of inherent equality and is rooted in the recognition of the dignity of everyone. For Christians, and Fred Rogers was an exemplary Christian, this perspective comes from the most fundamental belief in equality, that we are all creations of a loving God. God didn’t create some to be morally better or worse than others. In the words of our Declaration of Independence, we assert as a national conviction that we are all created equal. As an essay by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute titled “Is Civility Futile in the Face of Injustice,” puts it this way: “The Declaration of Independence recognizes that all persons are created equal and bear natural rights to life and liberty. This universal equality implies that all people are owed a certain level of respect, even if they are deeply wrong about very important things.”
Where Mrs. Clinton’s conception of civility is most clearly wrong is that she apparently believes that civility is properly situational – that we can and should be civil to those with whom we agree or over whom we dominate, but that with those who oppose everting we stand for, we can dispense with civility. Well of course we can be nice to our friends and allies. That takes no character at all. What takes character is to be civil with those with whom we have deep differences. And the necessary precondition to civility is respect.
Listen to the words of Abraham Lincoln, after a great political victory: “… in all our rejoicing, let us neither express, nor cherish, any harsh feelings towards any citizen, who by his vote has differed with us. Let us at all times remember that all American citizens are brothers of a common country and should dwell together in the bonds of fraternal feelings.”
That’s the perspective of Fred Rogers, and the perspective of Christ. We must heal the profound divisions in our nation by adopting that perspective as our own. There are few political leaders who espouse it. I am hopeful that the entertainment industry that so often contributes to the tearing down of our culture may, in this case, contribute to its reconstruction and renewal. That’s the promise of Tom Hanks’ “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” I will see it this weekend, and I hope that you will too.