Kentucky, the state where I live, is abuzz these days with discussion over expanded gambling.The governor here wants it, and conservative Christian groups don’t. This argument is hardly limited to here. I lived through it in my ancestral home on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, as the casino industry promised an economic turnaround if voters would just give them the right to exist. Almost every state is involved in some discussion of state-sponsored gambling.
I think there are bigger issues involved than how they are typically framed.
First of all, pro-gambling elected officials aren’t evil villains (necessarily). Yes, some of them are personally corrupt and poised to profit from the industry they are enabling. But many of these elected officials have good aims. They want to educate children, build infrastructure, and so on without raising a tax burden. I think gambling is an illusory way to do this, but, still, I acknowledge good intentions at the root of some of the cheerleaders for the industry.
But, unfortunately, I think both proponents and opponents of expanded gambling see this as merely a “values” issue. Of course conservative Christians don’t support gambling because they see gambling as immoral, so they want it illegal. These Christians also see drunkenness as immoral and so, if they could, the reasoning goes, they’d be right back at Prohibition.
But gambling isn’t merely a “values” issue. Neither is it primarily a “moral” issue, at least not in terms of what we typically classify as “moral values” issues. Gambling isn’t primarily a question of personal vice. If it were, we could simply ask our people to avoid the lottery tickets and horse-tracks, but leave it legal. Gambling is a social justice issue that defines how it is that we love our neighbors and uphold the common good.
Gambling is a form of economic predation. Gambling grinds the faces of the poor into the ground. It benefits multinational corporations while oppressing the lower classes with illusory promises of wealth, and with (typically) low-wage, transitory jobs that simultaneously destroy every other economic engine of a local community.
In the end, the casinos will leave. And they’ll leave behind a burned-over district with no thriving agricultural, manufacturing, or tourism economies. In the meantime, they leave behind the wreckage of “check-to-cash” loan sharks, pawn shops, prostitution, and 1-2-3 divorce courts.
Conservative Christians can’t talk about gambling, if we don’t see the bigger picture.
First of all, most of the “market” for gambling comes from those in despair, seeking meaning and a future. The most important thing a church can do to undercut the local casino is to preach the gospel. By that I don’t just mean how to get saved (although that’s certainly at the root of it). I mean the awe-filled wonder in the face of the really good news that Jesus is crucified and resurrected, the old dragon is overthrown.
Second, we must understand that gambling is an issue of economic justice. We can’t really address the gambling issue if we ignore the larger issue of poverty. Evangelicals who don’t care (as does Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles) about the poor can’t speak adequately to the gambling issues. By this I don’t simply mean caring about individual poor people but about the way social and political and corporate structures contribute to the misery of the impoverished (James 5:1). We will never get to the nub of the gambling issue if we don’t get at a larger vision of poverty and the limits of commercial power.
This means asking the state not to use acquisitiveness and covetousness to separate people from their means of living. But it also means modeling a different kind of ethic in our churches. The power of gambling lies in a vision of the “good life,” and that’s a vision that is co-opted by the gambling industry, not created by them. It is fueled by our fallen vision of limitless growth, of limitless acquisition.
Let’s oppose state-empowered gambling, but let’s do so while loving the poor the industry seeks to devour. Let’s work toward rebuilding families, honoring honest labor, and encouraging the flourishing of communities in which the impoverished are not invisible.
Too many of our “opponents” see us as morally-prissy Victorians who don’t want people doing “naughty” things in our presence. Let’s demolish that pretense, by being the gritty colony of the kingdom that sees the economically downtrodden among us as, when in Christ, “heirs of the kingdom” (James 2:5). And let’s hold out a vision, for all of us, of an inheritance that comes not through predation, and not through luck, but through sonship, through grace.
Russell Moore is Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice President for Academic Administration at the southern baptist theological seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore has authored and contributed to several books, including: tempted and tried: temptation and the triumph of christ, the kingdom of christ: the new evangelical perspective, and adopted for life: the priority of adoption for christian families and churches.