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How Mister Rogers got pulled into the Sarah Huckabee Sanders/Red Hen debate

Fred Rogers' mission to foster human decency takes a step back as shaming and hostility break out at a screening of the Fred Rogers movie.

Fred Rogers on the set of his show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood from the film, WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR, a Focus Features release
Fred Rogers on the set of his show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood from the film, WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR, a Focus Features releaseRead moreJim Judkis / Focus Features

If you're a conservative politician who wants dinner out or a night at the movies, it's not a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Republicans are getting chased out of commercial establishments all over the East Coast. Head of homeland security Kristjen Neilsen was hounded out of a Mexican restaurant in Washington last week, and so was chief of staff Stephen Miller a week earlier.

"Shame!" shouted patrons, protesting the administration's zero-tolerance immigration policy blamed for separating the families of illegal immigrants detained at the border.

>> READ MORE: When they go low, we go high – unless you're a member of the Trump administration | Opinion

On Friday, the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia, alerted by staffers to the presence of  White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, asked her to leave, protesting the administration's LGBTQ policies.

Farther south over the weekend, police were summoned near Tampa to escort Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi from a theater where she'd been besieged by hecklers. Protesters displeased with Bondi's opposition to the Affordable Care Act yelled, "Shame on you."

In Tampa, their shouts could be heard over the screaming irony that this unneighborly incident occurred after a screening of Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the brilliant and moving documentary about Fred Rogers, host of the long-running children's show Mister Rogers Neighborhood.

>> READ MORE: 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?': Moving doc about TV pioneer Mister Rogers

A protester even invoked Fred Rogers as she followed Bondi down the hall and toward the exit ramp.

Bellowed one: "What would Mister Rogers think about you and your legacy in Florida? Taking away health insurance from people with preexisting conditions, Pam Bondi?!"

Well we don't know, because Fred Rogers is currently spinning in his grave, and if he were alive, it is virtually certain he would have said nothing. He stayed away from partisanship lest presumed bias interfere with his sacred  mission — ministering to children.  Because he was publicly apolitical, most did not know he was a lifelong Republican. Certainly Fox News (in a segment shown in the documentary) did not when Brian Kilmeade denounced Rogers as "evil" for teaching children that they are special.

Director Morgan Neville, a University of Pennsylvania grad, intended the documentary to be inspirational, but when I spoke to him last month, I confessed that I found parts of it dispiriting, because the world that Rogers wanted to create  – built on empathy, respect, compassion – has utterly failed to materialize.

>> READ MORE: How going to Penn inspired the director of Mister Rogers doc 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?'

I was particularly deflated by footage showing that Rogers' funeral attracted anti-gay fundamentalists who were protesting because, well, I don't think even God knows why.

But Neville said our culture's escalating broad-spectrum intolerance is precisely why the film has inspired people.

"I've thought a lot about [why the film moves people]. Fred kind of digested his message down to what I call radical kindness, but Fred himself called it grace. And to him, grace was an idea that could be expressed as: be good to others, even if they don't deserve it."

Rogers, the film notes, was on his way to being a minister when he instead found his true calling — creating wholesome programming attuned to the complex emotional and psychological lives of children.

"He often quoted from the Bible, Jesus saying the one thing that evil really can't stand is forgiveness," Neville said. "Fred was always willing to go that extra step in that kind of way, and that's just such a radical notion in this day and age."

The irony of heckling somebody at a screening of  Won't You Be My Neighbor?  was obvious enough to be acknowledged by a protester who explained that she lacked Rogers' "poise and temperament."

But she wasn't backing off. Virtually everyone involved in these incidents has doubled down on their statements and behavior. Said a Bondi critic: "Sorry, not sorry."

Sanders issued a statement on Twitter saying the Red Hen owner disgraced herself.

"Her actions say far more about her than about me."

Sanders' father, Mike Huckabee, came to her defense, also on Twitter, but that only served to recall his bigoted, anti-immigrant posts from earlier that day.

The internet responded with its usual display of probity and wisdom – partisans jumped on Yelp to support/denounce the Red Hen. Haters jumped on any restaurant named Red Hen, including one in Swedesboro that contended with hundreds of "obnoxious" phone calls.

Boycotts were organized. Countervailing Go Fund Me pages established.

Grace, for Rogers, would surely mean staying above the fray — tending his flock, furthering his mission to provide a healthy psychological and spiritual space for the boys and girls who watched his show.

Given that, I don't think he would want immigrant children separated from their parents.

He might, on the other hand, want American children separated from theirs.