Not long ago, gambling was illegal almost everywhere. In those days, America sent gamblers into the desert to pursue their dissolution. Las Vegas—"Sin City"—existed like a disease under quarantine, separated from the commonwealth by hundreds of miles of arid wilderness. If you went to Las Vegas, you didn't tell your mother; you didn't take the kids.

But not today. Without much fuss, Vegas has come near to us all. You can legally gamble in 48 states of the Union. Gambling has become normal, like the sale of beer at Safeway. Casinos offer childcare.

Nowhere is this transformation more obvious, nor more surprising, than in poor, conservative, Bible Belt Mississippi, which now trails only Nevada in square feet of casino gambling space. In five years, Mississippi has grown 30 thriving casinos producing nearly $2 billion annual gambling losses. These losses are, of course, the casinos' gain, and the government's, for gambling operations are taxed by state and local authorities there at a 12 percent rate.

A deep strangeness
I began my tour of gambling in Mississippi at its southernmost part. As I followed State Highway 49 toward the Gulf of Mexico, billboards advertising games of chance slowly proliferated in the piney woods, until I reached Gulfport and saw my first Deep South casino. Downtown Gulfport looks beat-up and gray, with plenty of vacant storefronts and pawn shops. But on the waterfront gleam the Copa Casino—a converted cruise ship—and the glittering Grand Casino Gulfport, both seemingly lowered from a spaceship.

Mississippi's Gaming Control Act states that Gulf Coast casinos must be floating in the gulf waters. The Grand Casino sits on a barge so vast it is unthinkable that even a tidal wave could rock it. It has its own landside parking garage, its own 400-room hotel. You can walk upstairs and down on the gambling barge, from one mirrored wall to another, with only a vague sense that there is any world outside. The decor is gaudy and bright: patterned carpets, fountains of multi-colored lights, mirrored walls and ceilings. The electronic bells of slot machines make hypnotic background music against the harsher rhythm of large tokens dashing into metal trays—the sound, literally, of money poured out.

I had forgotten the deep strangeness of the casino environment. Whether I visited Mississippi casinos late at night or at 9:00 in the morning, I always found plenty of people, black and white, old and young, male and female, dressed in sweatshirts and jeans and pantsuits—a Kmart crowd. Most play the slots. They sit holding plastic drink cups full of quarters, smoking, drinking, patiently tending the simple machines that roll ahead every ten seconds to inform them whether they have won or lost money. The atmosphere is surprisingly chaste. No cocktail waitresses approach in skimpy costumes. Clean and bright childcare facilities are available. Even when a slot machine is slamming out a reward, no excitement is visible—no whooping or hollering, no hugging or high fives. You would not readily imagine that this is entertainment. It has more the flavor of an assembly line.

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And yet, the people are there, spending (losing) large amounts of money. They come from throughout the South—Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas, to judge by the license plates in the parking lot. About a third of the gamblers are Mississippians, according to the casinos.

I crossed to the other side of the street in the morning, to the sober red brick of First Baptist Church. Pastor Kiely Young met me in worn cowboy boots. He told me he had fought hard against the casinos. "Unfortunately," he said, "our projections of negative impact have been fulfilled." The church's benevolence ministry—handouts and help to needy people—has tripled since the casinos arrived in 1992. One prominent church member recently made the front page of the local paper. He lost his law practice, his family, and his place in the community to gambling and drink he couldn't control. Young told me of another high roller who was met at the airport by a casino limousine. After he had lost everything—and since the casinos offer ATMs, and credit card advance losses can be much more than what you carry in your wallet—the same limo drove him to the Salvation Army.

Spectacular flops make the Mississippi newspapers—like the three children under five years old who, left in the parking lot while their parents played the slots, set the family car on fire and almost killed themselves. Or the elementary school teacher arrested for embezzling $1,800 in Adopt-a-School funds to feed her gambling habit. Or the father of two, over $100,000 in debt to a casino, who killed himself after losing the last $40 in his wallet. I found plenty of such stories in back issues of the newspapers, and I heard more from the pastors I visited. Pastors feel the burden of increased social dysfunctions—more marriage counseling, more people hitting the church office for financial help. Yet they almost visibly shrugged when I asked what the church can do about it. Gambling has come to Mississippi for good, they say, and the only role they see for themselves is picking up the pieces.

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That's partly because of the enabling legislation. Mississippi's law allows individual counties along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast to vote on whether they want gambling. The catch is that if citizens vote no, gambling proponents can call for another election a year later—and keep calling them forever. (Recently, the "waiting period" has been lengthened for some counties.) If citizens vote yes, however, gambling is legalized forever. There's no way to reverse the choice.

Even if there were, it's very unlikely Gulfport and their near neighbors in Biloxi would do it. They love the money. "That's what put us on the map," Pastor Young said. "That's what stabilized the economy."

Thousands of new jobs have been created. Real estate prices are soaring. Housing subdivisions and huge hotels are under construction. Championship golf courses are in the making, causing people to hope the Mississippi coast might become a destination resort.

The casinos bring in name entertainers. Casinos offer attractive and inexpensive restaurants (I don't know how many people told me that you can get steak and lobster for $5.99) and burnish an image of Mississippi as a smart and savvy place.

Memphis magazine put it this way: "Mississippi lawmakers, regulators, and casino operators made decisions that were smarter, bolder, and ultimately more profitable than competitors'. … The skeptics who said 'the nation's fiftieth state' was too small, too conservative, too religious, too isolated … were wrong."

It is not lost on Mississippians—even Mississippi Baptists—that people in a big place like Memphis now admire their smarts, perhaps for the first time in history.

It remains to be seen whether the economic development has a wide impact. Casinos hire a lot of barmaids, but most of the jobs don't have a strong career path. Will the boom keep going, transforming the region, or will it leave a poor community with some gaudy casinos on its margins? The lessons of Atlantic City would favor the latter; Las Vegas, the former.

So far the beach strip shows few signs of renovation—it's still dominated by curio and T-shirt stores, aging motels, and graceful old homes. One of those homes is Beauvoir, the last home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. I stopped to tour the well-preserved house, and strolled a sandy path to an old oak tree where an aging Davis would sit and read his Bible. I couldn't help wondering what old Jeff Davis would think of the casinos, visible just down the beach. He led a rebellion not just to preserve slavery, but to protect the South's traditional, agrarian way of life—a world ruled by concepts of honor and nobility. That's all gone now. Money rules Mississippi.

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How the legislation passed
The Southern Baptists of Mississippi wield considerable influence, and if you doubt it, you should see the large office building they own across from the state capitol in Jackson. There I met Elizabeth Holmes and Paul Jones from the Baptist Christian Action Commission. When I asked them how it happened that Bible Belt Mississippi had accepted gambling casinos, Jones recalled a lunch he had with a very confident casino executive back in 1985.

Mississippi would surely become a gambling state, the executive had predicted, for three reasons. First, Mississippi was such a poor state, "the economic argument will be heard." (The campaign to bring gambling to the Gulf Coast used the slogan, "Vote Yes for Jobs.") Second, white Christians would fail to find allies against gambling among a new breed of black leadership, who remember too well the failure of white Christians to confront racism. Third, "Mississippi is probably as good an example of cultural Christianity as we have ever seen anywhere. We'll get the businessmen, and once we've got them, we'll silence the church."

That was the year, Jones explained, that the president pro tem of the state senate was caught taking a $50,000 bribe. His arrest and imprisonment set back gambling interests for several years. Then, in 1989, Gov. Ray Mabus proposed a new educational agenda, seeking to fund it through the establishment of a lottery. Baptists and other antigambling forces fought and defeated the lottery bill. The next year, the governor called a special session of the legislature to consider again educational reform. It happened that Southern Baptists and Methodists were holding their annual meetings that week, so many pastors were out of town. When they returned home on Saturday, they learned that the legislature had established the Mississippi Gaming Commission. Two years later, in August 1992, the first casino opened its doors.

I went by the Gaming Commission, where a helpful public relations officer, Warren Strain, gave me detailed statistical information on the gambling industry and explained how the commission's oversight operates. "We're not for it and we're not against it," he stressed, "even though it does put bread on my table." Strain verified that the casino operations are at pains to show themselves clean and mob free.

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I drove out to Vicksburg to visit one of the casinos built on the Mississippi River, stopping to see the Civil War battlefield on the way. The tourist slogan is, "History … and so much more." It appears that this means, "History … and gambling." Unfortunately, people who are interested in history don't much gamble, and vice versa. The town of Vicksburg looks as though it had died and someone forgot to bury the body. At the top of the famous bluff overlooking the Mississippi is the old town, with handsome spired churches and historic houses. At the bottom, on the river, is Harrah's casino, an ersatz neon riverboat. In between is an attempt to establish a street of boutique shopping, with brick sidewalks. Half the stores are empty. The riverboat no doubt brings tax money to Vicksburg, but it evidently does no more for its environment than a tire factory.

That's not necessarily an indictment, however. I tried to think how Vicksburg would be altered if the casinos became factories for some other useless product—bobble-head dolls, for instance. I'm sure Mississippi would happily accept regional leadership in bobble-head doll manufacturing. The jobs would require, presumably, about the same skill levels as do casino jobs. The main difference would be felt by the addicts. There are no problem consumers of bobble-head dolls the way there are problem gamblers. And the state, addicted to revenue, would never be able to tax a manufacturer at 12 percent of revenue.

The pornography of success
Legal gambling is not new to these United States. In the early Republic, games of chance were common (Jefferson and Washington recorded their losses at cards), and lotteries financed everything from roads to schools to churches. Corruption was so common, though, that lotteries were gradually outlawed through the early part of the nineteenth century. After the Civil War, several Southern states turned back to lotteries for revenue, and the Louisiana lottery continued to operate for decades; but cheating was legendary. A reform-minded Congress outlawed all lotteries in 1894, and gambling remained illegal everywhere for 40 years. Not until the financial desperation of the 1930s did Nevada begin its experiment. New Hampshire waited until the 1960s to lead the states back to lotteries.

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Most Protestants have viewed gambling as inherently problematic, if not sinful (in point of fact, a lot of Christians—Catholics particularly—never have seen gambling as sin). Gambling may be entertainment, but it is not wholesome entertainment—it depends on lust as surely as does pornography. Gambling appeals to people's fantasies that they can get something for nothing. It is the pornography of success, undermining that important element of character known as the work ethic—the conviction that all people need to work persistently at productive tasks.

The vast majority of people can "handle it," as the gambling industry is quick to point out, but gambling does cause persistent social problems. Poor people tend to gamble away larger percentages of their income, so it's a "tax" on those who can't afford it. A recent study found that the poorest of Mississippians—those making less than $10,000 a year—spend more than 10 percent of their income on gambling if they live in a county where it's legal. Most troubling of all, a certain percentage of people—estimates run from 1.5 to 6.5 percent—can't control their gambling, and these "problem gamblers" increase when gambling is readily available. Problem gamblers become the embezzlers, bank robbers, suicides, child abusers, and bankrupts you read about in the newspaper. Robert Goodman in The Luck Business estimates that each "problem gambler" costs society $13,200 a year, including bankruptcies, fraud, embezzlement, unpaid debts, and criminal justice costs. Other estimates range from $20,000 to $30,000.

A 1997 study from Mississippi State University estimated there are between 46,400 and 88,700 problem gamblers in Mississippi. If Goodman's estimates of social costs are accurate, then problem gamblers cost Mississippi at least $600 million annually—a lot more than casinos pay in taxes. However, the cost of problem gamblers is diffuse, while the taxes are money in the bank.

Really, the argument over gambling rarely reaches this level, because the rhetoric of choice sweeps every other argument away. For economic conservatives, casinos offer a pure form of capitalism: an ingenious product sold to willing buyers. Mississippi casinos promote economic development without much government involvement; they keep taxes low; and they locate only where local counties vote to invite them in. Isn't this what Newt Gingrich has been advocating—low taxes, less government, local control? The logic of the market won't let some higher authority say what products are worthwhile or restrain unwise choices by consumers. If people like to buy bobble-head dolls, let them. If they get a bigger kick out of pouring money into slot machines, that's their choice. If they blow away their rent money in the process—that's their problem, not mine.

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The rhetoric of choice appeals to liberals, too, though in a different way. Liberals react against traditional moralism. Abortion, pornography, sexual behavior, saluting the flag—these they think should be a matter of choice, not public morality. (On other matters, of course, liberals can become quite moralistic.) Regarding gambling, why should the state tell people whether it's wrong? Why shouldn't people choose for themselves? Meanwhile, casinos satisfyingly integrate different ethnic groups (gambling is a great leveler) and offer jobs to poor people rather than lecturing them on their need to stay married and to avoid drugs and crime.

So both conservative and liberal impulses meet when gambling is legalized. It's probusiness yet socially liberal. Actually, you'll notice this combination on most of the social vices. Pornography, alcohol, gambling, tobacco—where would they be without corporate America? Vice makes excellent business, and businesses promote vice very efficiently. Only they don't call it vice. In America today we don't have any language to discriminate between legitimate and illegitimate business. As Warren Strain of the Mississippi Gaming Commission put it, "We're not for it and we're not against it, even though it does put bread on my table."

Mardi Gras on the Mississippi Delta
The strangest locale for gambling is Tunica County. Located in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, Tunica is two-thirds black and desperately poor—on some lists, the poorest county in America. At least it was until the casinos got in.

Most of the traffic into Tunica comes by way of Memphis, a mere 30 minutes' drive. I came the other direction from Jackson, following straight, narrow highways. I don't remember seeing a new building on the entire drive. I didn't see many old buildings, either—this part of the country is relatively unpopulated. The cotton was coming in, so all along the roads, head-high bricks of cotton waited to be ginned. Unpicked cotton laced the fields like an early snow. Then, through the hazy November afternoon I saw, from far off, the gleaming 30-story tower of the Lucky Strike Hotel, under construction.

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There is no town nearby. Really, there is nothing nearby. The Tunica casinos don't sit on water but starkly alone on the river side of the Mississippi levee. The large, gaudy buildings are mostly built on a theme—Irish castle, Mardi Gras, Country, Hollywood, Wild West. Gamblers come from nearby Tennessee and Arkansas, though new golf courses and a 30-story hotel suggest that the casinos plan to reach out to a wider region. Already, the casinos offer more jobs than there are residents in the entire county. Welfare rolls are down, way down. Tax dollars have poured in faster than the local authorities know how to spend them. It's a stunning change for a place that hasn't seen much.

Yet the change is not uniform. I stopped in at the Baptist building in Clarksdale to talk to W. C. Johnson, the 70-year-old director of missions for Baptists in the North Delta. His threadbare office gives supplementary relief to people short on money, and they are having a banner year—more people showing up looking for help than ever before. Funds are short, Johnson said, since local Baptist offerings are down, as is church attendance. There are three pawnshops in Clarksdale where there used to be one, and two clothing stores recently went under. Johnson wanted to be fair, and he made a point to tell me that the casino money did a lot to improve roads and build new schools. The casinos, from what he hears, treat their employees with dignity and fairness. But, "These people who live in the Delta can't afford to gamble. Losing $50 for them is like $1,000 for someone else."

I asked him how pastors in the area feel about the casinos. He said that, black or white, local pastors oppose gambling, seeing the damage it does in families. They feel helpless to say much, though. "Most of them have decided that preaching is not going to work." One Baptist pastor wanted to take out an ad in the local paper, stating that his church would have nothing to do with the casinos. When he went to calculate how many families kept completely clear, however, he could come up with only a handful. He pulled the ad. Even people who don't gamble like to get a cheap meal at the casinos. "My son and his wife go a lot," Johnson said. "I asked him if he would grow a beard for my sake."

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I ended my trip just over the state line in Memphis, where I visited relatives. My niece, a recent college graduate, told me that she frequently accompanies friends to Tunica for an evening of gambling. The rest of the family goes less often but consider it a lot of fun when they do. My brother-in-law, a doctor in a medical research lab, told me that his working group planned to take a bus to Tunica instead of holding a Christmas party. They had done it once before, and the feeling is strong that it was the best Christmas celebration they ever had. He theorized that people from very different social strata—doctors and lab technicians and secretaries—feel more comfortable together in a casino than they would at a party.

I thought I detected a slight uneasiness in the way they talked to me about it—as if to say, "Who would have ever imagined me enjoying a casino!" Yet it was evident that gambling had become a quite normal way for an educated, civic-minded family to have fun.

Memphis magazine reports that people in Memphis lose about $450 million annually to the Tunica casinos. According to a 1997 poll, they are split right down the middle—half visiting the casinos and half staying home, half thinking the casinos have made a positive impact and the other half considering it negative. Is there a debate going on, however? Not in the least. It's a free market, and if you don't like gambling, you don't have to go.

Most Americans don't have any moral language to talk about whether gambling is a good thing for us as a community. Commerce is the only language we hold in common, and it speaks of choice. I didn't know what to say, therefore, when my relatives told me how much they enjoyed gambling. What language could convince them that gambling is a sin?

America's Gambling Habit
Legal gambling has swept across the United States three times. The second wave ended shortly after the turn of the century. We are now in the middle of the third wave of legal gambling.

1909 Nevada outlaws casino gambling. By the end of 1910, virttually all gambling is outlawed in the United States

1931 Nevada relegalizes casinos, becoming the only state with legal casino gambling. In the 1930s, 21 states bring back racetracks; low-stakes charity bingo spreads through the nation.

1940s and 1950s Almost all states change their laws to allow parimutuel betting on horses and low-stakes charity gambling.

1963 New Hampshire rediscovers the state lottery. The first drawing is held in 1964, the first legal lottery in this century. Players fill out long forms for drawings held only twice a year.

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1978 First casino opens in Atlantic City, making New Jersey the second state with casinos. Total preopening cost of the first casino, Resorts International: $45.2 million; 1996 gross revenue at same casino: $224.6 million.

1985 First interstate lottery, linking the state lotteries of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

1987 Cabazon case decided by U.S. Supreme Court, affirming the right of Indian tribes to self-regulate high-stakes versions of all games not prohibited by state law.

1988 February: State lotteries creat first national lottery, "Lotto America." October: President Reagan signs the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act: November: South Dakota voters amend their constitution to allow low-states casinos in Deadwood.

1990 New York amends its parimutuel wagering law to allow off-track betting operators to accept phone-in bets from residents of other states.

1991 Picturesque, low-limit riverboat casinos open in Iowa on April 1 to nationwide television coverage. Six months later, high-limit riverboat casinos open in Illinois.

1997 By the end of this year, 25 states and three territories have legalized true casinos through statutes and tribal-state compacts. Many of these are not yet open. At least 12 state lotteries are in the quasi-casino business with video lottery terminals and keno.

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