Footloose is anti-extremism, not anti-Christian

John Lithgow (right) as Rev. Shaw Moore and Dianne Wiest as his wife, Vi, in the 1984 film Footloose. © Paramount Pictures photo.

Read more: Roger Moore’s review of the Footloose remake.

When I went to see Footloose on its opening night in 1984 with some of my church youth-group friends, I don’t think we realized we had done something anti-Christian.

Kenny Wormald and Julianne Hough take over the roles created by Kevin Bacon and Lori Singer in the remake of "Footloose." © AP/Paramount Pictures photo by K.C. Bailey.

A lot of us had the cassette tape (ancient precursor to the mp3) of the soundtrack on our car stereos or our Walkmans (ancient precursor to the iPod) months before the movie opened. It had hits including Kenny Loggins’ title tune, Deniece Williams’ Let’s Hear It for the Boy, Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out for a Hero and ­Shalamar’s Dancing in the Sheets — OK, maybe that last song should have tipped us off that something was a little risqué here.

Yes, we recognized that there was a strong religious element in the movie. The focus was on a small town’s ban on dancing at the urging of local preacher Shaw Moore, played with wonderful focus by John ­Lithgow. But we didn’t exactly recognize that brand of Christianity.

Our church was by no means a liberal mainline denomination. It was a non-denominational evangelical church before those got to be so hip, particularly with conservative Christians.

But bans on dancing and the like weren’t part of our world — ­although there was occasional debate about whether we should see “Hollywood movies.”

My impression was that the Footloose preacher learned a few lessons about being overly judgmental and controlling, and the kids turned out to be all right for the most part, even if they did dance to rock ’n’ roll music.

So, with the Footloose remake opening in theaters this weekend, it was eye-opening to look back and realize that in some circles, Footloose was considered anti-Christian.

In naming it No. 8 on its list of the “10 most anti-Christian movies of all time,” New York ­magazine wrote, “It’s Lithgow’s ­villain who really makes the movie: Soft-spoken and patronizing when he’s not spitting out the fire and brimstone (‘He’s testing us!’), his performance is a bone-chilling portrait of smug self-righteousness and could easily blend in among any number of Sunday-morning-TV preachers. The only thing missing is a bad hairpiece.”

I never saw Shaw as villainous – more like woefully misguided. With two more decades perspective, now I would want to ask him why he chose to turn a new teen in his congregation into an instant enemy instead of ministering to him where he was, which was sort of his job.

Clearly, however, there were Christians who felt attacked by the movie.

On the Relevant ­Christian blog, an ­unnamed writer wrote that movies like Footloose are more dangerous than The Golden Compass, which is openly hostile to Christianity, because “a movie like Footloose propagates the idea that our faith in Christ is bound up and enslaved by rules (legalism). Footloose also reinforces all the worst in negative stereotypes and it strips clean any notion of grace, love or virtue from our faith. Therefore I believe that ­(uncritically) ­inviting a movie like Footloose into our ­affections does potentially more harm than a hundred Golden Compass movies ­combined.”

Easy stereotypes have not done Christians many favors. For people who don’t really take time to ­understand the faith, be they screenwriters, ­politicians or journalists, it isn’t difficult to fall back on the notion that there is a “No fun allowed” sign above the entrance to every house of worship.

But those stereotypes get plenty of ­reinforcement from Christians, ­including the Toledo, Ohio, ­Christian school principal who banned a student from graduation in 2009 because the kid went to his girlfriend’s public school prom. It is unfortunate that there isn’t more media highlighting the good things millions of Christians do, but it also is unfortunate that there are plenty of people calling themselves Christians who are anxious to tell everyone what to do. Those people fuel the creation of characters such as the Rev. Shaw Moore, played in the new Footloose by Dennis Quaid.

As I write, I have not seen the new Footloose.

But in the original, I do not recall a message that Christians are bad. The lesson I took away was that our faith and understanding of God continue to evolve throughout our lives, even for those who reach a point when they think they have all the answers.

The Rev. Moore learned that, as Ecclesiastes 3:4 tells us, there is “a time to dance.”

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