Gambling has spread in subtle ways. Church bingo, for example, has played an important role. So have charity raffles. Together they have softened public attitudes toward gambling. In recent years, when various forces began urging legalization of casinos and state-run lotteries, Americans were ready to listen.
Christianity Today magazine, in an editorial, put it this way:
``Probably no influence was stronger to reintroduce legal gambling than the desire of churches and charitable institutions to raise contributions through bingo and raffles.''
Today, church-run gambling has gone beyond bingo. On a recent day, Metro-Dade detectives near Miami took action against illegal gambling activities at two church carnivals. The Miami Herald reported that one of them, the Visitation Roman Catholic Church in North Dade, had eight gambling booths at its carnival, including a wheel of fortune and a craps-like dice game.
Sgt. Wayne Clark of the Organized Crime Bureau for Metro-Dade noted: ``The churches run their own games for their fund-raising operations, and in most cases they're running gambling operations.''
A number of religious officials, such as the Rev. Richard Bumpass, a Baptist chaplain at the United States Naval Academy, say involvement with gambling has weakened the moral position of the churches. When the showdown on big-time gambling has come in state legislatures, churches often had little influence, either with the public or with lawmakers.
Some denominations, such as the Roman Catholic Church, have no strict teachings against gambling. Says Russell Shaw, a spokesman for the National Council of Catholic Bishops:
``In Catholic tradition, there isn't the kind of opposition in principle that you find in some other religious traditions to either gambling or legalized gambling.''
States where Catholics are numerous, such as New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York, have led the way toward legalized gambling, says a study by the federal Commission on the Review of the National Policy Toward Gambling.
A large body of Protestant teaching, on the other hand, sees gambling as an antisocial, anti-Christian activity. Some Protestant churches that have not succumbed to the lure of raffles and bingo have become increasingly alarmed as legalized gambling spreads.
The result has been a growing thunder from Protestant pulpits, especially in the South. Involved are both pastors and lay leaders, such as Gov. Bob Graham (D) of Florida, who sees gambling as a force that weakens the fabric of society. It also includes scholars, such as George Sternlieb of Rutgers University, who suggests that widespread gambling could do long-term damage to the country.
What are the moral, ethical, and religious objections to gambling? Should governments run gambling operations, such as lotteries? Governor Graham puts his objections to state lotteries this way:
``I just believe that what the lottery says about success is the wrong message. What it says is that you don't have to work hard, you don't have to try to improve yourself. All you have to do is just take your roll of the dice.''
Pat Riordan, an aide to the governor, notes that a lottery puts government into the area of ``promotion of gambling. The governor feels that it is contradictory for the state to be in the business of education, of reinforcing traditional values, and then to turn around and promote the lottery. It undermines exactly what the state has been trying to achieve in the schools.''
Dr. Sternlieb suggests that when government must turn to devices like a lottery to raise money, it raises questions about its credibility with the voters. Comparing the US with some corrupt governments in Latin America, he recalls:
``It was Ernest Hemingway, in one of his novels, who defines a Latin American republic as a place where you can't drink the water, trains don't run on time, and they sell lottery tickets on the street. Well, we've arrived.''
Lotteries, superjackpots, casinos -- all promoted by the states -- are threatening to undermine basic American values, Sternlieb suggests. High-stakes gambling is ``competing quite successfully with an alternative vision of blue-collar America -- and lotteries are a blue-collar game.
``That alternative vision of blue-collar America, and I don't want to romanticize it, is a guy who works very hard, and every Friday they get off from work, and before they go out with the boys -- or girls, as the case may be -- they go to their local savings-and-loan and put $10 a week into the bank.
``You see, over a long period of time they end up with enough money to buy a retirement hovel in St. Augustine, or they pay off the mortgage, or whatever. This is the folklore. This is the leitmotif of America, lower-middle working class.''
Million-dollar lotteries threaten that, Sternlieb says. Why put $10 in the bank? That won't change your life. But $10 on the lottery could bring sudden riches. Gambling has given Americans a new way of looking at life. He explains it in football terms:
``You move from a sort of ground game to a great many million Americans throwing long passes without much in the way of skill involved.''
He asks: ``Is there some linkage between the incredibly low savings rates of Americans -- the lowest savings rates of any industrial country of the world -- and this shift into fantasy?''
The toughest fights against gambling are being waged in states where the populations are largest of Southern Baptists, United Methodists, Assemblies of God, and other denominations staunchly opposed to gambling.
It was John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, who early put into words the objections of many Protestants about gambling:
``We cannot, if we love everyone as ourselves, hurt anyone in his substance. We cannot devour the increase of his lands, and perhaps the lands and houses themselves, by gaming.''
Bill Sherman, pastor of Woodmont Baptist Church in Nashville, explained it this way to his congregation on a recent Sunday: ``Gambling is bad because it is deceiving. . . . It hurts people, marriages, and children.
``God would have us be open, not deceiving. God would have us be serving, not exploitative,'' he told them. ``God would have us be giving, not self-serving with greed. God would have us be responsible with our stewardship, and not irresponsible. God would have [us] help people, not hurt people.''
The admonition to ``love thy neighbor'' is violated by gambling. ``How can we love our neighbors while condoning this kind of exploitation?'' Dr. Sherman asks.
A number of Christian leaders say gambling implies that God is not in charge. TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, for example, urges people to realize that ``life is not a gamble, blind luck, or chance; rather, life is controlled by a loving Heavenly Father.'' Gamblers, the Rev. Mr. Swaggart says, are putting their faith in the cards, or the numbers, rather than in Providence.
Can the churches win this battle?
Larry Braidfoot of the Christian Life Commission notes that bingo and raffles ``blurred'' the issue for a while. Also, the rapid growth of gambling caught many churches by surprise.
Today, Dr. Braidfoot says, many Christians have gotten their act together. The struggle has just begun.
Third of eight articles. Next: Are lotteries just a fad?