Christians and Gambling

click on photo to link to resources on gambling addiction

On Thursday evening, a meeting was held at City Hall. Members of the City Council’s Administrative and Community Service Committee met in joint session with members of the Public Safety Committee. For a gathering of committees, this meeting was particularly well-attended by visitors. I was present, along with several members of our local ministerial alliance.

The issue that claimed our attention is the expansion of legalized gambling in our state, particularly the movement toward video gambling machines. Recent Illinois legislation has opened the door to video gambling in businesses that possess a license to serve liquor. Soon, it may be possible for local restaurants and bars to install up to five video gambling machines. The law also makes provision for a local municipality to pass an ordinance banning video gambling within its boundaries. It is discussion of a possible ban is that prompted good turnout at Thursday’s meeting, and, naturally, there were citizens on either side of the issue.

People who support the introduction of video gambling say that it is a good source of revenue in an ailing economy. The distribution of net profit after payout goes like this: 35% to the business owner, 35% to the gambling machine vendor who maintains the video gambling machines for the business, 25% to the State of Illinois, and 5% to the local municipality. By one estimate, video gambling has the potential to generate $250,000 per year for our city. Some say that if we don’t take advantage of video gambling, then another community will.

Other citizens are against video gambling. They say video gambling has no better chance of solving the government’s fiscal problems than the state lottery that was introduced years ago. They say that the combination of video gambling with drinking is dangerous because it promotes gambling by those with impaired judgment. They say that video gambling is hypnotizing, and will create more pathological gamblers.

If you ask, “What is the Christian position on gambling?”, then my answer would have to be nuanced.

I would admit that the Bible contains some stories about godly people whose behavior seems like gambling, such as the “casting of lots,” a practice something like rolling dice. In ancient Israel, Joshua uses this method to divide land for the Israelites.[1] In the early days of the Church, the apostles cast lots to decide which disciple will replace Judas.[2] Even Jesus seems to praise taking risk in stories like his Parable of the Talents.[3]

I would admit that portions of the Christian Church, and community groups whose members are predominantly Christian, have engaged in fundraising strategies that look like gambling. At one time or another, most of us have been encouraged to support a good cause by participating in games of chance like bingo and raffles. Like many of you, I have purchased so-called “50-50” tickets at meetings of the Rotary Club and school basketball games (50% to winner and 50% to sponsoring group). I’ve been known to wager a nickel on a hand of cards, or on solving the puzzle first during an episode of “Wheel of Fortune.”

In studying the ethics of taking a risk, I also would focus our attention on motive and strategy. I think a good theological case can be built that there are important differences:

  • between risk for purely personal enrichment and risk for the greater good of family, church, and community;
  • between pathologically compulsive risk and thoughtful, measured risk;
  • between risk that calls us to depend upon people whose business model requires our financial losses, and risk that calls us to depend upon God, who always has gracious intent for our well-being.

But if you ask, “John, as our pastor and a religious leader in our community, what do you think about video gambling?” then my answer is simple and unambiguous. I think it’s a bad idea.

There are several approaches I could take to defend my view. Like many of my colleagues in this community, I could make the case biblically in terms of God’s call to wise stewardship: using our gifts in service to neighbor and community for the greater good of all. Or, I could make the case in terms of God’s call to pursue justice for those who are weak, poor, or otherwise vulnerable.

From my unique perspective as a Presbyterian, I might remind you of a classic text in sociology and economics by Max Weber, bearing the title “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” Describing Weber’s analysis as simply as I can, he found that it was the Calvinists of Europe who energized the formation of capitalism because of their intense desire to prove through a life of service that they genuinely belonged to God. Weber argued that it was the Calvinist ethic of discipline and thriftiness that created the ideal conditions for the growth of capitalism. In many places, merchants didn’t have savings to invest in newly developed machinery. But the Calvinists, with both spare capital and the willingness to risk it for something other than pleasure, were able to take advantage of new industry. Where this sort of discipline in work and savings was repeated in thousands of households, capitalism and progress flourished.[4] My Calvinist theological heritage suggests the following: a society that systemically expands and promotes games of chance is also undermining the values of thrift and discipline upon which our nation was built, and upon which our community and businesses depend for long-term health.

The Presbyterian tradition I represent stands for freedom of conscience, but I think there are important differences between protecting freedom of conscience and promoting poor behavior. From my perspective, the proposed model of video gambling looks less like an exercise in freedom of conscience and commerce, and more like a desperate attempt to raise revenue by endorsing unhealthy risk taking. The current fiscal crisis in our state and nation teaches us that when a small portion of the population engages in high-risk behavior, and something goes wrong, then everyone suffers from the negative consequences. God help us if we bless more high-risk financial behavior.

It’s not often that an issue of community concern arrives at my doorstep with so many offers for help. Some of my fellow religious leaders have done things like draft a letter to the Editor, and compile educational materials from “Illinois Church Action on Alcohol & Addition Problems,” which are available for you on the table at the back of the sanctuary. I also invite your help: If you’re so inclined, please pick up a sample letter, and use it as a model for your own personal letter to the mayor and your city alderman expressing your support for a ban on video gambling.

I lift up today’s text from the sixth chapter of Paul’s First Letter to Timothy as particularly pertinent: But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, child of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

[1] Joshua 18:1-10.

[2] Acts 1:15-26.

[3] Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:12-28.

[4] Weber, Max, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” trans. Talcott Parsons, intro. Anthony Giddens (Gloucester, Mass: Peter Smith Publisher, 1988), pp. 110-114.


~ by JohnH1962 on July 1, 2012.

2 Responses to “Christians and Gambling”

  1. Thank you for an insiteful lesson of our community concerns

  2. You are welcome, Carol. Thanks for reading, and for your feedback.

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