Gambling's rise splits Southern communities

Pastors condemn games of chance, but parishioners say casinos bring

Just a few miles from the soaring white steeple of the Rev. Paul Husband's wood-and-brick church, across wide fields of Mississippi cotton, they sprawl like new-age plantations. Casinos, decked in neon, lure novice and seasoned gamblers to slot machines, high-stakes poker games, and blackjack tables.

Mr. Husband can't see them from where he stands, greeting parishioners in a dark suit as they enter his church. But he's finding his new neighbors increasingly difficult to ignore.

Looking at those games of chance, and the rows of poor and destitute townspeople that flock to them, Husband is quick to condemn what he sees as a vice. But he also knows that since the casinos arrived, unemployment here has hit an all-time low. Some estimates say the industry has brought in 60,000 jobs during the past eight years.

Like many pastors across the South, Husband teeters on a biblical tightrope each Sunday - preaching how gambling brings crime and a breakdown of the family, while acutely aware of the fact that it also provides a living for many in his congregation.

"You make do with the situation you've got," says Husband. "Right now, you've got an industry pouring billions into the economy, but you've got to wonder if it's right somehow."

Since the first century of European settlement in the South, Christian values have been a cornerstone of the region's culture. But now, with lotteries and casinos becoming more a part of Dixie's landscape, towns are being torn between their traditional fealty to the Bible and the promise of economic salvation.

For churches, it has meant a new crusade to promote the rewards of the Word over those of card wagers and rolls of the dice.

"For those in the gambling industry, the word 'gambling' doesn't exist," says Robert Goodman, executive director of the United States Gambling Research Institute in Northampton, Mass. "They call it 'gaming' and they call those of us who win and lose money in their establishments 'players,' never gamblers. Communities and churches are up against this sort of PR."

In the South, Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Virginia have lotteries. South Carolina and Florida have casino boats.

Mississippi didn't have casinos until 1992, when the state legislature approved gambling in an effort to boost an economy that has suffered since the mechanization of the harvesting of cotton in the 1940s. The idea worked, supporters say, directly creating 38,000 jobs, and creating and additional 22,000 jobs through companies that supply goods and services to casinos.

Now, many ministers say it's their duty to offer moral recourse. Roads from Arkansas to Tunica, Miss., for example, are lined with warnings of antigambling coalitions: "Tunica, This Way to Hell."

Christian groups in the state are taking all kinds of steps to keep casinos out. The Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council, a network of 2,500 Arkansas churches, is one of several groups fighting ballot-initiative proposals in 2000 to allow casinos.

Groups like these are trying to build on the momentum created two months ago, when churches played a major role in defeating the video-gambling industry in South Carolina and plans for a lottery in Alabama.

Even if the message doesn't come directly from the pulpit, it's getting through.

Here at Husband's Tunica Presbyterian Church, many condemn gambling as their pastor does. Still, few want to talk about it or cast dispersions on what some call the "Tunica Miracle."

"Gambling is evil," says one elderly female parishioner. "But don't you dare say I say that. There are too many people in these parts who know that without gambling we would still be a poor county getting no help."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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