Do we really care about gambling?

The news that the United States government is cracking down on online poker gives United Methodists an opportunity to recall our historic opposition to gambling.

In “The Social Principles” the language about gambling is clear.

Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, and destructive of good government. As an act of faith and concern, Christians should abstain from gambling and should strive to minister to those victimized by the practice.

Where gambling has become addictive, the Church will encourage such individuals to receive therapeutic assistance so that the individual’s energies may be redirected into positive and constructive ends.

The Church should promote standards and personal lifestyles that would make unnecessary and undesirable the resort to commercial gambling—including public lotteries—as a recreation, as an escape, or as a means of producing public revenue or funds for support of charities or government.

As is so often the case, the Social Principles assert rather than argue, and therefore do not provide us with much in the way of theological grounding for the church’s position.

We might conclude from The General Rules that gambling falls in that category of “diversions” which cannot be done to the glory of God, but the rules do not mention gambling by name.

John Wesley in his sermon “The Use of Money” mentions in passing the taking of money from another via gambling as harming your neighbor and therefore a violation of Christ’s great commandment. He also would single out casinos as places that entice men and women to many kinds of sins. As such, no Christian who cares for the souls of those who visit such establishments should be in that line of business.

In both instances, Wesley characterizes gambling as doing harm to your neighbor.

To gamble itself, we might argue, is dangerous to the Christian because it encourages the love of money and the putting to chance resources which might better be used to care for one’s family or others in need of support. Hanging out in casinos, which often trade on their reputation as houses of sin, certainly is putting ourselves in the cross hairs of evil.

And yet, many Christians – many United Methodists – likely consider gambling at worst a harmless recreational activity that some people unfortunately overindulge in. Our Wesleyan tradition and our understanding of Scripture do not support such an attitude.

How, then, should United Methodists talk about this? What should we do in our congregations? Do we believe still that salvation is at stake in this discussion? Or do we cling to our words about gambling out of habit?

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7 thoughts on “Do we really care about gambling?

  1. As a pastor, our prohibition against gambling comes up most often whenever we are considering fundraisers. Inevitably we get into raffles or Bingo, and I always take the opportunity to say that games of chance are not allowed in the church. So it is easy to talk about it within the church, but as far as people’s personal involvement…not so much.

  2. Early in my active ministry I got a call from then Bishop Ken Carder.

    “We want you to chair the conference board of church and society?” he said.

    “Hey, I’m new to ministry,” I replied. “Don’t you think you need someone with more experience?”

    “We think you can handle it,” he offered.

    Two months after I came into office, the TN State Legislature voted to send the question of changing the state constitution to allow a state sponsored lottery to Tennessee residents. Within days of the vote, I got a call from our new Bishop Bill Morris.

    “You are the Church and Society chair. You’re in charge of opposing the lottery,” he said.

    Thus I found myself at the center of a state-wide, multi-faith campaign to oppose something that when we began some 75% of Tennesseans approved of.

    It was a learning experience for sure, for I quickly discovered that the response was pretty much universal, both among laity and clergy:

    1) Churches shouldn’t involve themselves in politics. This is a political issue so you should avoid it like the plague.

    2) Gambling is harmless, most thought. Yes, there are a few addicts, but the benefit of sending our kids to college for free outweighs the harm.

    3) Ho hum. I have other fish to fry.

    What surprised me a bit was the response of some of my progressive, liberal friends, who believed that opposing the lottery was a “right-wing” issue, and thus to be rejected. In spite of the evidence that shows that gambling (especially lotteries) tend to prey on the poor and leads to greater poverty, hard-core progressive could not get their heads around the fact that they could indeed agree with the right-wing on certain issues, and refused to do much to oppose the notion that they state was about to enter the business of trying to coerce poor people out of their paychecks.

    In the end we lost the battle, although we made some headway, changing public opinion from 75% in favor to just over 50%, a 25% move which all the pundits suggested was an impossibility.

    Where I have ended up is again the recognition (as Wesley believed) that gambling flies in the face of love of neighbor, since by definition my attempts to win means that I am rooting for him to lose. In all honesty, given our society, I have less problem for a corporation to do this (such as a casino) for the market economy is often about trading money for a product (in this case entertainment), but absolutely oppose the state praying on its citizens.

    The bigger ethical issue for the church is whether we are willing to participate in the profit generated by the gambling issue. Following the referendum I attempted to get the TN Annual Conference to resolve that no conference agency would accept gambling profits, including our Methodist colleges (in the form of gambling generated scholarships). It failed. When I have suggested to trustees in every church that I’ve served that we need to think about whether we would accept donations derived from gambling, everyone chuckles and tells me either that we will “redeem those evil winnings” or to turn my back (what you don’t know won’t hurt you).

    However it becomes even more personal when I consider my 16 year old daughter, who is a couple of years from college. Frankly, her preacher mom and I don’t have any savings for her college, barely make enough in our ministry to handle our current medical bills, and really have little clue how she will be able to afford to go. Recently, her guidance counselor talked with her about some grade issues, noting that the Hope Scholarship (gambling derived) requires a certain GPA and a certain score on the ACT. The chance of getting that not insignificant scholarship motivated her to seek extra tutoring and work at getting her grades up. At one time I said clearly to my wife and others that we would not accept Hope Scholarship funds out of principle. In the face of not attending college, does my principled stand make any sense, and how do I convey that principle when she has done most of her growing up in a world where lottery billboards are the norm, and scratch off ticket machines are in every corner market? Are we really willing to stand in opposition to gambling when OUR kids have to suffer as a result?

    • Great question. I admire the seriousness with which you have thought about the matter. This is where talking about social evils becomes like wrestling in a room full of fly paper. Your going to get some icky stuff stuck to you.

      If we refuse to accept any support from any government program that derives its revenue from gambling, then do we have to stop driving on roads or take our kids out of public schools? In Indiana, gambling money keeps the state government from collapsing – which is why gambling is on the constant increase. Once the politicians learn they can get money out of gambling, they suddenly want to see it grow and grow.

      Your question gets at the core issue: How bad is gambling?

      If Tennessee still sold slaves and used the tax on slave sales to set up college scholarships, you’d have no qualms (I hope) about refusing to take the money. So, how much is the evil of gambling like the evil of slave trading? That – to me at least – seems to be the question.

  3. I appreciate very much the personal nature of Jay’s struggle with this issue. What I want to address is the side of the issue that is the larger church issue (which Jay also raised). In Indiana gambling (besides the lottery) has a hold in our most low income communities – down in French Lick, Indiana (where I lived as a child) and up in the region (where I lived for my longest tenure of living anywhere as an adult). In both of these cases I believe gambling was able to take hold because of the paucity of other options developed by the state and the municipalities. But the Church has been complicit in that as well. We have closed and downsized churches in these communities (something which is true of low income communities across the country)…and all we can do is find a way to say “don’t gamble” to these communities. While I am against gambling for reasons both practically (economic development wise) and theologically – and for many of the reasons listed above – I don’t find that I can stand against it, politically – unless I can find a way to stand for an alternative. Our alternatives as a denomination in these communities is to provide food pantries and utility and rent assistance – Wesley himself was much more imaginative – MUCH MORE IMAGINATIVE – about pro-active responses that provided economic development. But it is my experience that we don’t want to work that hard. If we can provide a few canned goods and a few dollars we feel as if we’ve done our work. So – for the last couple of years every time we have voted our opposition to gambling – I have raised my voice and my vote against that – until we provide a clear alternative to gambling. It is morally bankrupt (a good gambling metaphor I think) to propose to communities that we have essentially abandoned – that they shouldn’t gamble – while we toss them a few crumbs from our tables.

    • Long time since you posted this, Mike, but I was being blog silent for the week.

      Our abandonment of low-income areas is a result in part – is it not – of our funding system. Local congregations sustain themselves. If they were truly mission outposts of the statewide connection, we would move the money around differently and be able to sustain a presence in places that we now retreat from.

  4. It’s a lot more complex than just the result of our funding system. But I think that I was trying to make the argument that if we are going to be anti-gambling we need to recognize why, at least in part, gambling takes hold. And find a way to make some response to that alongside of it. Again – Wesley did this. He created economic cooperatives. He did micro-lending before it was cool (or even called micro-lending). He saw the world whole (not perfectly, but well). Our responses to this (and other things – the Call to Action report today for example as you have very well pointed out)…are often shallow and not well thought out. That’s all I’m sayin’…

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