America is rapidly becoming a nation of gamblers. The lure is money: tax-free winnings, instant prizes, huge jackpots. Seeking fun and fortune, people are snapping up billions of dollars' worth of lottery tickets, pouring coins into electronic gambling machines, and placing more and more illegal bets on sporting events. There's even ``million-dollar bingo.''
It's a ``mania for gambling,'' says Robert L. Custer, one of the nation's foremost specialists on gambling problems.
What is really notable in all of this, however, is that this gambling fervor is being welcomed, and even encouraged, by government. As a result of the 1984 elections, government-run lotteries have now been legalized in states that contain more than half of the American population.
Thousands of first-time gamblers, particularly women, are being attracted to government-run lotteries that have been started in 18 states and the District of Columbia. The lottery states now include some of the largest -- New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois. And the biggest lottery of all, in California, is set to begin on Labor Day.
All of this is changing the old, seedy image of gambling in the United States. Remember the riverboat gambler? The big-city numbers runner? The card shark in a smoke-filled room? They've been superseded.
Today's billion-dollar bettor can be seen pushing a shopping cart down a grocery aisle in a neighborhood store. On aisle ``A'' she picks up the milk and butter. On aisle ``B'' she selects the tomato juice. Then on aisle ``C'' she plunks down a dollar on the Maryland lottery.
Gaming & Wagering Business magazine reports that 1 out of every 4 convenience grocery stores in the US -- stores such as 7-Eleven, Li'l General, Circle K, and Christy's -- now sells lottery tickets. Housewives, retirees, schoolteachers, truck drivers, and businessmen shelled out $6.8 billion on government-run lotteries in fiscal year 1984 -- an increase of 32 percent over the previous year. Buying tickets has become as convenient in many towns as buying a loaf of bread.
Lotteries are not the only hot ticket. Bingo, that seemingly innocuous pastime run as a fund-raiser by some churches, has become a serious game with casino-like stakes.
It's now legal in one form or another in 46 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington. An estimated $3 billion to $5 billion is bet in bingo games each year by 50 million -- yes, 50 million -- regular players.
There's also horse-race betting in 36 states and Puerto Rico, with nearly $11 billion wagered last year, dog racing ($2.4 billion last year), jai alai ($640 million), and casinos (nearly $5 billion). And biggest of all, there is the illegal world of sports betting, which some federal officials say may now reach $25 billion to $30 billion a year.
Across the country, only four states now outlaw all forms of betting: Hawaii, Indiana, Mississippi, and Utah.
Today's widespread and open gambling represents a change in American mores that has come about with stunning speed.
A nation once steeped in the Protestant work ethic finds millions of its people staking their hard-earned cash, and in some cases even their futures, on the roll of the dice, or the choice of a three-digit number.
The change has come about not only because of the appetites of bettors for money. It is also being encouraged by state governments, which hunger for gambling revenues. A growing number of states are betting their futures on gambling receipts to fund vital public services -- especially through lotteries.
The states that ran lotteries last year came away with $2.8 billion in profits (fiscal year 1984), up 35.6 percent over 1983. Pennsylvania, the biggest winner, netted $515 million for the state's coffers, up 54 percent in one year.
State lotteries are big business. If the present lotteries were considered as a single unit, they would rank larger in total sales than such industrial giants as Monsanto, Caterpillar Tractor, Honeywell, or Johnson & Johnson.
Americans spend more money today on lotteries than they do on the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, federal prisons, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service -- combined.
America has seen outbursts of legalized gambling before. But developments in the past few years have raised eyebrows in a number of quarters. And nowhere is more concern being expressed than in the churches, particularly conservative Protestant churches in the South and West.
To fight the gambling tide, church officials have taken a two-pronged approach: direct confrontation with gambling forces in some areas, and a rear-guard defense in others.
In the Northeast, where state-run lotteries are already operating, Protestant church leaders say the best they can hope for at the present is to persuade people to avoid gambling. There seems little prospect that legalized gambling, including state lotteries, will again be banned anytime soon in states like New Jersey or Maryland, church leaders say.
In nonlottery states, church officials are determined to meet the issue of gambling head-on, and stop it. This is particularly true in the South.
Says Larry Braidfoot, general counsel and director of the Christian Life Commission: ``Throughout the South and the Southeast, church involvement in opposing the spread of legalized gambling has been quite high.''
On a recent Sunday, the Rev. Dr. Bill Sherman, pastor of the Woodmont Baptist Church in Nashville, explained the issue to his congregation this way: ``Gambling is bad because it is deceiving. It is exploitative. It is motivated by greed. It is self-serving. It is dishonest stewardship. It hurts people, marriages, and children.''
But it's a difficult struggle. Even in the Bible belt, public-opinion polls show that support for legalized gambling, such as state-run lotteries, is steadily growing.
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