Is Gambling a Problem or a Panacea?

When was the last time you gambled? Did you buy a lottery ticket that last time the Big Game reached into the multiple millions? Or did you stop by a casino in Las Vegas to play Blackjack and catch a show? Or maybe you love to bet the horses, or the dogs.

In a moment of full disclosure, I lost about $6 playing the slot machines in the on-board casino on a Caribbean cruise this summer, and I won about $100 at Churchill Down several years about picking the long shot winner of the Derby with a $4 bet.

Are we all part of a fine American tradition or are we committing grievous sin that will bring ruin to the Republic?

Gambling is a popular American tradition that provides enormous entertainment and helps government raise money, while enabling frequent personal financial ruin, spiritual bereft, and high crime. Surprisingly, the United States has had a long history of allowing some forms of legal gambling and a degree of tolerance of illegal gambling. And societal tolerance and acceptance of legal gambling can change rapidly. Scandals and gaming interests playing politics have led to backlashes which result in regulation and/or prohibition.

State governments have been involved in gambling for a very long time. In fact, gambling was a popular sport of the non-Puritan English who populated the colonies, and lotteries were used to bail out the early colonies. Although some financial backers of the colonies viewed gambling as a source of the colonies’ problems, they began to see it as the solution as well. The Virginia Company of London, the financier of Jamestown in Virginia, was permitted by the Crown to hold lotteries to raise money for the company’s colonial venture. The lotteries were relatively sophisticated and included instant winners.

All 13 original colonies established lotteries, usually more than one, to raise revenue. Playing the lottery became a civic responsibility. Proceeds helped establish some of the nation’s earliest and most prestigious universities — Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, Princeton, and William and Mary. Lottery funds were also used to build churches and libraries. Ben Franklin, John Hancock, and George Washington were all prominent sponsors of specific lotteries for public works projects.

Gambling has experienced huge swings in popularity and legality during our history, and we are currently in the third major gambling wave. If you’re interested, read this brief history of gambling in the U.S.

The government involvement in gambling has also seen huge swings. Despite their colonial and early American popularity. from 1894 to 1964, there were no legal government-sponsored lotteries operating in the United States.

Growing opposition to tax increases was a leading factor in establishing state-run lotteries in the 20th century. In 1964 New Hampshire was the first state to sponsor a lottery, followed by New York in 1967. New Jersey launched the first financially successful modern lottery in 1971. Today, only Hawaii and Utah do not have state-run lotteries.

Today, there are more than 40 riverboat casinos in Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa. Nearly 50 riverboat and dockside casinos in Louisiana and Mississippi. Approximately 298 Indian casinos and bingo halls were operating in 31 states – up from 70 in 16 states in 1988. 48 states have legalized some form of gambling – lotteries, casinos, riverboat casinos, Indian casinos, video lottery machines, pari-mutuel betting (horse racing, dog racing, jai-alai).

But despite my dalliances, disclosed above, I am opposed to the proliferation of gambling, and particularly the use of gambling as a method for public officials to raise funds. There are both spiritual and societal reasons for this opposition. Without developing a long treatise on the ills of gambling, here are a number of troubling facts gathered from many sources about gambling:

o The average compulsive gambler has debts exceeding $80,000 (Dallas Morning News, 1/4/84)

o Gambling exploits the poor, as “the poor bet a much larger share of their income.” (National Bureau of Economic Research)

o Thirty to 50 percent of money collected by casinos annually comes from about 4 percent of the population.

o Legalized gambling increases illegal gambling by 300 percent. (Organized Crime Section of the Department of Justice)

o Getting killed by lightning is seven times more likely than winning a million dollars in a state lottery. (Harper’s, July 1983)

o Only 40 cents of every lottery dollar goes to the state budget. Direct taxation costs only 1 cent on the dollar.

o Crime within 30 miles of Atlantic City rose by 107% in the nine years following the introduction of casinos to the area. (Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Aug. 1991)

o The rate of compulsive gambling among teens is growing at twice the rate of that of adults. (Dr. Howard J. Shaffer, Director of the Harvard Medical School Center for Addiction Studies)

o Crime rates in casino communities are 84% higher than the national average. (U.S. News & World Report, 1/15/96

o Crime rates for counties with casinos are 8% higher than the crime rates of counties without casinos. (Las Vegas Sun, 6/17/99)

There’s also a reasonable case that gambling is what Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc. calls a “grievous sin.” The League is fight gambling interests in North Carolina.

Gambling is always sinful because it emanates from a spiritual motive God summarily rejects—covetousness, Creech argues.

He says: “Covetousness is an inordinate desire for money, property, or something that belongs to someone else. Rex Rogers in his book, Seducing America, rightly says there are only three ways to legitimately acquire property: (1) as a gift, (2) as a payment for labor, and (3) in fair exchange. Anything else is but a form of covetousness, and gambling certainly doesn’t fit any of these criteria. Covetousness is the motive that drives the gambling enterprise.

It’s a violation of the Tenth Commandment — “Thou shalt not covet” (Ex. 20:17). Jesus strongly warned against this sin, saying: “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Lk. 12:15).”

The first and second gambling waves ended in part because of a resurgence of public concern about morality and scandals in gaming. People can live with adverse odds but not cheating. Will the third wave of gambling end any time soon? Probably not, given the fact that it is largely victimless, politicians are for the most part gutless, and while covetousness is on God’s Top Ten List of sins, it doesn’t really seem to be a priority of the American church.


–James Jewell

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About Jim Jewell

I am a writer and consultant on faith and public life, active for many years in management and communications in the evangelical community. I now work as the director of the nonprofit practice at The Valcort Group (www.valcort.com). Everything on this blog, however, is my personal opinion and is not read or approved before it is posted. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Valcort.
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