When The Simpsons debuted in 1989(!), it was hard not to see Ned Flanders as a punchline. As Homer and Marge’s irritatingly Christian next-door neighbor, he oozed a sunny sweetness so at odds with the Simpson family’s hard bitten antics that he couldn’t help but seem like a nuisance.
But 1989 was a long time ago, and though Springfield hasn’t changed much, the times have. In the early 90s, the Simpsons looked like a family barely scraping by. But as the Atlantic has pointed out, Homer is a gainfully employed homeowner who can comfortably provide for his wife and kids — that’s a level of comfort no longer really attainable for the average American. And just as remarkably, Ned Flanders no longer seems like a pest. Instead, he’s sort of a proto-Ted Lasso — a compassionate, thoughtful neighbor who makes an effort to treat everyone around him with respect.
Some of this is a sign of changing times and attitudes in the U.S., but some of it is deliberate, too. The longer The Simpsons has aired, the more dimensional Flanders has turned out to be. This Oral Roberts University grad grew up in an unstructured home, turning to the relative stability of organized religion after growing tired of his beatnik parents’ lack of healthy rules and boundaries.
True, he can be a stickler for certain rules (no dice in the Flanders household) but he’s also sacrificially kind to a fault — having donated both a kidney and a lung. He’s a fiend for volunteer work, popping up at soup kitchens and homeless shelters across Springfield with an okily-dokily smile and a heart ready to share from the overflow of God’s love.
Is Flanders a little cringe? The guy’s doorbell is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” so, yeah, you could say he really leans into the vibe. But let’s be honest: Isn’t there something kind of refreshing about that? After several decades of Christians pretending to be the “cool” kind of Christian, Flanders is unapologetically not cool. For him, being a Christian means he’s got bigger things to worry about.
Moreover, it seems like Flanders really likes being a Christians. Unlike many pop culture depictions of Christians, Flanders isn’t consistently tortured by belief or suffering under crushing guilt. Being a Christian provides him with meaning and purpose. It makes him a better person, even if it makes him a little oblivious to how he comes across to others. But then, so what? He’s not living for the approval of others, after all.
Above all, Ned Flanders is decent. He’s not trying to own his political opponents. He’s more concerned about the wellbeing of the people who live next door to him than any culture war. He cares about his family, he spends a lot of time serving others and he is devoted to making an impact in his small corner of the world.
Maybe, after several years of Christians seeing Ned Flanders as a cautionary tale, it’s time to see him as a little more aspirational. Maybe there are worse things out there than being perceived as too nice and too friendly. Maybe as the American Church reaps the rotten fruit of upholding a few too many crass, violent reactionaries as the standard for Christian ideals, we could see what comes of trying to be a little more like Flanders.