On the Church and Society
October 31, 2005
With the proliferation of gambling throughout society in recent years, this question seems more pertinent than ever before. But at the same time, the stigma that once went along with gambling obviously has diminished.
Consider that New Hampshire became the first state to legalize a lottery in 1963. Now, 40 states and the District of Columbia have lotteries. Nevada legalized casino gambling in 1931, and was not joined by Atlantic City, New Jersey, until 1977. But casinos today have spread across much of the nation, with the American Gaming Association reporting that 11 states have commercial casinos and 28 allow Indian casinos.
One gambling-related phenomenon would have been unthinkable not that long ago, that is, watching poker on television. Yet, the "World Series of Poker" on ESPN and "Celebrity Poker Showdown" on Bravo, for example, have proven wildly popular.
Of course, one can still place a wager on horse racing as well. More than 54,000 people attended the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships at Belmont Park in New York on Saturday, October 29. Ironically, given our topic, the final race of the day the Breeders' Cup Classic was won by a horse named Saint Liam. A $2 wager on Saint Liam paid $6.80.
So, what should Christians say about this expansion of gambling?
Some churches have long taken unequivocal stances opposing gambling. For example, the United Methodist Church declares: "Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, and destructive of good government." The Presbyterian Church (USA) notes its "long history of opposition to all forms of gambling as an abdication of stewardship." Many evangelical and fundamentalist churches also preach against gambling.
Interestingly, though, gambling is not prohibited in Holy Scripture. Many churches oppose gambling because of potential ill effects, such as greed, sloth, addiction, neglect of one's family, misuse of time, talent and resources, and even idolatry.
A valuable assessment on gambling was done a few years ago by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. It ably highlights the moral concerns, and warns that "gambling by its very nature exposes the one who engages in it to the sins of greed and covetousness." The statement adds: "Its consequences dare never be underestimated."
But this also is balanced by another warning in the same document: "Some Christians have taken the position that certain behaviors (such as any form of dancing, smoking, alcoholic consumption, the cinema, card games, certain forms of music, and the like) are sinful because they can (and often do) lead to sinful behavior... The Scriptures themselves, however, warn against tthe tendency (which God's people throughout history have not always successfully resisted) to teach'as doctrines the precepts of men' (Matt. 15:9). Where God's Word does not clearly declare a certain behavior sinful, we must refrain from binding the consciences of others."
The Roman Catholic Church teaching on gambling seems to be in line with Scripture. The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" instructs: "Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagering are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others. The passion of gambling risks becoming an enslavement."
And those risks dictate why churches should not turn to gambling, including bingo or casino nights, for fundraising, although some do. For the same reason, government should not be running and promoting gambling.
But that does not mean that government should bar the private sector from gambling ventures. And while Christian churches have a clear duty to warn against the significant perils that could result for some from games of chance, that does not translate into condemning all forms of gambling.
Since Holy Scripture does not declare gambling to be a sin, it's a risky bet to play holier-than-thou with God.
Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, can be reached at ChurchandSociety@aol.com.
Copyright © Raymond J. Keating