Elizabethtown College associate professor of religious studies and peace and conflict studies Dr. Michael G. Long is the author of “Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering The Countercultural Mister Rogers,” released on March 13. The book takes a deep look at the prominent social figure’s pacifism and the still-present effects of his acts of peace promotion.
Rogers is most remembered for his television show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which aired from 1968 to 2001. The show was innovative in that it addressed several issues that other children’s programs in the twentieth century did not. Rogers discussed death, competition, war and divorce. A frequently discussed idea was that of the expression of anger; Rogers, in his signature sweater, encouraged children to handle their negative emotions with acts of good nature.
Long first became interested in exploring Rogers as a public figure after seeing Eddie Murphy doing a caricature of him on “Saturday Night Live.” Despite his warped initial perspective, as Eddie Murphy and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” host Johnny Carson had a tendency to portray him as a weak figure, Long, with a background in peace studies, was able to identify Rogers as a man of great strength.
As an adult, Long watched viral videos of Rogers and “had a sense when [he] watched these videos that [Rogers] was probably one of the most underappreciated pacifists of the twentieth century.”
Long understood that Rogers deserved to be looked at with admiration. “He is also one of the most powerful ones, with having a national platform for delivering his pacifist messages that no one else did,” Long said of deciding to make him the subject of his latest book.
Long went to the Fred Rogers archives and read his sermons, letters and published and unpublished manuscripts. Looking at his programs further convinced Long of Rogers’ important place in the pacifist movement. “He was an ordained Presbyterian minister and he took his vocation very seriously,” said Long. “He was fueled by his belief.”
Rogers’ position as a religious and television figured established him as a double-threat, as he earned the respect of children and adults alike. “He used the Neighborhood of Make Believe to transport us from a society poised to kill to an oasis of peace and justice,” Long said of Rogers’ non-threatening activism. His development of fantastical methods of promoting peace within younger generations resounds in the United States to this day.
“Rogers considered himself a peacemaker,” Long said, fully agreeing with the self-granted title. One year before his 2003 death, Rogers received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President George Bush for contributing to the well being of the country’s children as a result of his long-running television show.
Long’s research on Mister Rogers is his latest project as he looks to understand the role of peace and activism in the world. He blogs for the “Huffington Post,” has appeared on “C-Span” and “NPR” and has had his work published and reviewed in The “New York Times,” “The Washington Post,” “The Los Angeles Times,” “The Boston Globe,” “USA Today” and “CNN.”
“Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering The Countercultural Mister Rogers” is now available from Westminster John Knox Press.