America is a nation of gamblers. Walter Wagner labels gambling “America’s greatest mental health problem.” Sixty-eight percent of American men gamble, 55 percent of its women. Last year 17 states, including the District of Columbia, sold $3.8 billion in lottery tickets—up one-third from the previous year. Twenty-four additional states have laws pending to authorize government-run lotteries. If treated as a lump sum, their net income last year would place these lotteries among the top 20 companies in the nation.

When nongovernment-sponsored gambling is included, the figures become astronomical. We have no way of knowing how much money was won and lost in social gambling among friends, at church bingos, charitable raffles, football games, prizefights, and other sports events. Still less is it possible to assess accurately the total amount lost in illegal professional gambling. One researcher calculates that professional gambling interests pick up $50 billion every year. Estimates of the total amount wagered run from $500 billion on up to $1 trillion per year, with 7 to 10 million compulsive gamblers—more than the number of alcoholics. By any count, America is a nation of gamblers.

America Began As A Gambling Nation

Columbus’s sailors whiled their time away crossing the Atlantic by playing cards. In 1612 the British government ran a lottery to assist the new settlement at Jamestown, Virginia. The father of this country, George Washington, declared, “Gambling is the child of avarice, the brother of iniquity, and the father of mischief”—but he kept a full diary of his own winnings and losses at the card table. In 1776 the First Continental Congress sold lottery tickets to finance the Revolution. President Washington himself bought the first lottery ticket to build the new capital. Federal City (Washington, D.C.). From 1790 to 1860, 24 of the 36 states sponsored government-run lotteries. Many schools and hundreds of churches conducted their own lotteries to raise funds.

Through this period the voice of the church was uncertain. Cotton Mather preached against gambling as the denial of the providential control of God. Puritans and Quakers generally followed him. Yet the professor of ethics at Harvard University, William Ames, defended gambling. In fact. Harvard financed the erection of its building by lottery, and the University of Pennsylvania raised its operating budget through gambling.

Outside New England, the church’s protest was mild. Francis Scott Key, one of the few great laymen of the American Episcopal Church in that day, was a member of the evangelical party in his denomination. He introduced a resolution to the general convention of 1817, calling on that body to condemn gambling as “inconsistent with Christian sobriety, dangerous to the morals of the members of the church, and peculiarly unbecoming the character of communicants.” But the Episcopal House of Deputies declared his resolution unnecessary.

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Evangelicals Once Shaped The National Conscience

In that day, evangelicals were everywhere in the forefront of socially uplifting causes. They could not point to a biblical “Thus saith the Lord: thou shalt not gamble.” But they denounced it as socially harmful and inconsistent with the biblical view of God and the Christian’s responsibility to exercise good stewardship with his resources. Methodists and Baptists supported the Puritans and Quakers in an evangelical activism that lay at the growing edge of American Christianity all through the nineteenth century. State after state rejected government lotteries and declared gambling illegal. The last fling of government participation came in Louisiana in 1894. It ended in corruption and in a financial fiasco. Public gambling was finally stopped cold when U.S. Postmaster General John Wannamaker, an evangelical, barred “all letters, postcards, circulars, lists of drawings, tickets, and other materials referring to lotteries from the mail.”

How Churches Also Aided A Moral Reversal

Public attitudes about gambling began to change dramatically in the middle of the twentieth century. Probably no influence was stronger to reintroduce legal gambling than the desire of churches and charitable institutions to raise contributions through bingo and raffles. By 1977, 44 of the 50 states had legalized some form of gambling.

Then government itself began to get interested in a share of the take. In 1964 New Hampshire became the first state to set up a public lottery. Other states quickly followed: New York, 1967; New Jersey, 1971; Connecticut and Massachusetts, 1972; Illinois, 1974.

The turbulent fiscal years of the seventies drove many state governments to seek new sources of revenue. Gambling seemed to have two built-in attractions for hard-pressed legislators who did not wish to antagonize their voters by driving up the taxes. First, they thought legal gambling would drive out illegal gambling associated with big crime. Second, they saw it as a painless way for the state to raise money.

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But things were not quite that easy. It did not drive illegal gambling out of existence. And states quickly discovered that they could not make money merely by drawing off customers from the illegal gambling in existence. The reasons for this were simple: Governments were trying to raise taxes; to do that they had to decrease the size of the prizes, making it harder to compete with the professional gambling interests. They also discovered that winnings from state-run lotteries were not so attractive. Public winners had to pay income tax, while winnings from illegal gambling were clear profit.

Finally, the real motive of those who gamble is not to pay taxes or to support education, or to foster any other good cause in which the state is interested. Those who put down their good money to gamble did it to win, and to win big. As David Hansen, director of marketing for the New York State Lottery, notes, “The chance of the big money is the motivating factor.” People buy the tickets in response to a straightforward appeal to greed.

These conclusions drove the states into huge promotional activities. Professional consulting firms like Scientific Games Incorporated of Atlanta offer a complete analysis of the market as well as professional guidance, full marketing schemes, and all the paraphernalia to do a slick job.

The result is that states are making more money. They are popularizing gambling and wooing many citizens to take up gambling who never gambled before. Involvement in itself lessens the stigma against gambling. Gambling is not only legitimate business, it is the chic thing to do. New York buys spot radio pitches: “Play your hunch. You could win a bunch.” Colorado brazenly lures its citizens with the appeal, “Win ten thousand dollars instantly.” New Jersey urges business to give exciting lottery tickets instead of cash bonuses to their employees. And when state revenues fell by $115 million, the remedy was immediately to up the advertising budget for the state lottery by $2.5 million.

How Should A Christian Regard Gambling?

In his fight against gambling, Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple echoed the words of Cotton Mather and evangelicals before him. The fundamental Christian objection to gambling is that it represents a denial of the God of providence. It replaces him with the universe of pure chance and a dependence on blind luck.

Of course, Christians have to take risks. Every businessman does this daily as a necessary part of his business. Insurance is a risk, but it is not gambling because at its basis it is a sharing of burdens. Gambling is an artificially contrived risk, taken for selfish gain at another’s expense, with no constructive product or social good as its goal.

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The Christian does not know beforehand the consequences of all his acts, but he believes in an ordered universe controlled by a good God who has his best interests at stake. The resources of the world have been placed in his hand by a God who holds him responsible to exercise stewardship over those resources. He knows that spending $1,000 to win $500 is poor stewardship, and to seek to gain at the hurt of another is not Christian love.

Because of their deep opposition to gambling, many Christians have withdrawn from all attempts to control the gambling business. Of course, all gambling is bad. But the more of its evils we can avoid, the better our nation will be. In spite of distaste for gambling, therefore, Christians should join others at local, state, and national levels to work to remove cheating and corruption and the public advertising that spreads the evils of gambling among our citizens.

State-run lotteries represent a special danger in the eyes of most evangelicals. Strangely enough, some evangelicals have argued: Let the heathen pay to support government; government will take their money and that will only free our evangelical resources for evangelism and other projects of eternal significance.

But such a view is extremely shortsighted. Gambling is one of the most regressive forms of modern taxation—that is, it lays the greatest burden on those least capable of bearing it.

At a far deeper level, supporting government by gambling chips away at the foundation of democracy. The key to democratic government is individual responsibility. To finance government by gambling is to take from each citizen his sense of personal responsibility for what the state does and for providing that state with the means for doing it.

All strong government, and especially effective democracy, depends on the strength and character of a nation’s citizens. Government funding by gambling encourages citizens to indulge their weakness. President Reagan rightly states, “We should appeal to the people’s strengths rather than their weaknesses in order to get the funds we need to run state government.”

Moreover, dependence on gambling revenues fosters the idea that the citizen should trust not himself and his own efforts and resources but blind luck—or the other guy—to support the nation. This undermines his resolve to achieve the goals of government by his own efforts. It destroys his personal sense of responsibility for his government. And it lessens his concern for economy and thrift: the other guy pays.

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Accordingly, the New York Times flatly denounces government revenue by gambling as “economic immorality.” We concur. It is economic and political immorality. It destroys the strength of democracy. In ancient Rome, the citizens only received—through bread and circuses. But they did not pay. Likewise today, when the people do not pay to support their government, they soon lose any sense of responsibility for it. And that is the end of democracy.

A century ago our nation reversed its position and began to oppose gambling. It can do it again—if we have the will.


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