Over the past two years, there’s been an enormous drive to anoint Fred Rogers as something close to a prophet or saint in American pop culture. He’s somebody everyone is supposed to agree on: that gentle face we all grew up watching on public television, the man who instilled us with good morals and told us to love our neighbors. The 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? received almost universal acclaim for its commemoration and adoration of Mister Rogers, taking up his pedagogical philosophy of respect and acceptance for all as a paradigm for navigating a post-Trump world. In the face of relentless bigotry, Fred Rogers has been chosen as our culture’s moral compass — kind, no doubt, but also agreeable and non-confrontational. This year, Marielle Heller took a more nuanced approach with the fictionalized A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which initially approaches Rogers with skepticism before embracing his way of looking at the world.
Like many American children from the baby boom onward, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a staple of my early television viewing. Before graduating to slightly more advanced juvenile entertainment, I did my time in that tiny model neighborhood, eating up Fred Rogers’s words of encouragement. Almost as pervasive as those cardigan sweaters were rumors about Mister Rogers, traded between suspicious peers on the playground and at Sunday School. Despite his mild-mannered persona, there are a good number of people who seem genuinely convinced that Fred Rogers was anything but a gentle man. Though there have been decades of (debunked) rumors about his sexuality, these weren’t the usual scandalous and sensationalized tables of a celebrity run amuck. They were, however, predicted on the assumption that Fred Rogers was a completely different person than he pretended to be on PBS.
Perhaps the most prevalent of these myths concerns Rogers’s supposed military service. Despite the kind demeanor he broadcast to an audience of millions — or maybe because of it — there’s a widespread myth that casts him as Rambo. He didn’t just serve in the American military, but was a highly decorated sharpshooter with dozens of confirmed kills. It goes further. Rogers wasn’t just a ruthless assassin; he also racked up an enormous collection of arm tattoos, hence the need for those long-sleeved shirts and sweaters. There were even more culturally specific rumors about Mister Rogers’s hardened heart. I grew up Mormon, and was regularly told by churchgoers in my congregation that regardless of the message of love he preached, Rogers was actually a militant anti-Mormon who protested the construction of Latter-Day Saint churches and temples.
As far as I know, there’s no information (at least not any publicly available) that points toward Rogers hating Mormons. Regardless, it’s a regular topic of chatter on LDS message boards with names like “mormondialogue.org.” The rumors that Rogers was a Navy SEAL or sniper are easier to debunk. Rogers was born in 1928 and attended high school during World War II, graduating after it ended. By the time the draft was in effect during Vietnam, he was too old and already an ordained minister, which would have exempted him from service — not to mention that he was regularly appearing on television for the entire duration of the war, so there’s no period of time in which he would have been able to serve.
These myths about Rogers seem derived from the same impulse that drives us to canonize him. In troubled times, societies seek out heroes, whether storied individuals from the past or icons of inspiration from the present. We look to saints for guidance; not necessarily religious figures, but people whose lives offer a way forward in the darkness and a framework for righteous, proper living. But once a culture designates something as sacred, it generates an opposing reaction, a need to make that sacred thing profane, to defile what we’ve been told is holy. Maybe ours is just a society starved for love, but in some ways it seems like a fundamental distrust of goodness in human beings. Mister Rogers can’t just be a nice man. He either has to be a divine being sent from Heaven to preach a message of harmony on viewer-supported television, or he has to be the American Sniper, covered in tattoos and beating up Mormon missionaries in back alleys.
Every expression of love has its equal and opposite expression of hate, and if Mister Rogers is a deity to some, it seems only natural that he should be a demon to others. But there’s a third way: Mister Rogers was a cultural icon, and like every icon, there’s truth to him, but the man we know is as much (if not more) a manufactured persona as he is the real Fred Rogers. He doesn’t have to be a saint or a sinner. Maybe he’s just a nice old man who lives next door.