This fall Christians won a great victory for good government and liberal values. But no one expressed it in those terms. In the media it was painted as a victory for the repressive moralism of the Religious Right.

What we're talking about is a reversal in the spread of state-sponsored gambling. The biggest victory was in Alabama, where Governor Don Siegelman had been swept into office on his promise of a referendum to legalize a state lottery. Polls showed 60 percent of voters favoring the referendum.But churches throughout the state mobilized a campaign in opposition, uniting believers across denominational, racial, and geographical lines. Not far from the state capitol in Montgomery a billboard asked, "Lottery? WWJD [What would Jesus do]?" Since statistically the poor spend a much higher percentage of their income gambling than do the rich, pastors condemned the lottery plan from the pulpit, arguing that it is morally wrong for the state to raise money by preying on the poor."A lottery is the most regressive of taxes," Michael Kelly explains in the Washington Post: It's a way of saying, "You want better schools but you don't want to pay for them? No problem, we'll get the poor folk to pay your freight."Though outspent four to one, the churches prevailed and voters rejected the lottery plan—an astonishing victory.Two days later, South Carolina's high court handed the gambling industry another defeat, declaring a proposed state wide referendum on video poker unconstitutional. The ruling leaves intact a law prohibiting the game as of July 1, 2000. This in a state where last November then-Governor David Beasley, a Christian, was ousted precisely because of his firm opposition to gambling. Again, it was churches that helped turn public opinion.Until now, the gambling juggernaut seemed unstoppable. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia already have lotteries. But Christians are turning the tide—taking a stand for the poor against lawmakers looking for easy sources of revenue.Yet no one is thanking believers for their humanitarian stand. Consider the irony: Here is the government, essentially breaking the liberal social contract—the agreement by which the people submit to being governed, in trust that those who govern them will act in their benefit. In stead, the government is actively seeking to legitimize a vice that destroys people and wrecks homes. (A Gamblers Anonymous survey found that 44 percent had stolen from work to support gambling debts; 34 percent had lost or quit a job; 26 percent had divorced or separated; 21 percent had filed for bankruptcy; 18 percent had gambling-related arrests.) For government to encourage—and even profit by—such self-destructive behavior is, as Kelly puts it, "a profound betrayal of every liberal value there ever was."On the other side are the churches, staunchly defending the liberal social contract. "The forces of good government in Alabama," Kelly writes, "were the armies of the church." Yet in media reports, Christians were typically portrayed negatively: "A great victory for liberal values was presented … as a great victory for the dogmatists of the Christian Right."Throughout history, churches have carried on a tradition of working for the social good. They have built orphanages and hospitals, founded schools, worked to outlaw slavery, ministered to prisoners. They have, in short, helped build liberal societies. Yet the stereotype persists of Christians as repressive and illiberal.Our apologetic task is to show that Christian principles are precisely what produce a humane liberal society. And today, we can adduce data from social science to back up our argument. Consider the recent book Why America Needs Religion, by Guenter Lewy. Interestingly, Lewy is not a Christian, and he set out to write a book on why America doesn't need religion. Yet his research found that Christianity has historically been a strong support for human dignity and social justice. And today, Christians exhibit measurably lower rates of out-of-wedlock births, juvenile delinquency, adult crime, and other "indicators of moral failure and social ills." Though remaining a nonbeliever, Lewy concluded that Christianity is vital to creating a healthy, humane society.This should be Christians' motivation for seeking reform in the public arena: Objective evidence shows that living by biblical principles makes people happier and healthier. Christians are called to be agents not only of God's saving grace, for redemption, but also of his common grace, for establishing a just and humane social order—one that reflects the great liberal ideals.Contrary to those who say we have lost "the culture war," the truth is, that when we make our case well, we can persuade our secular neighbors that the principles we espouse truly are the foundation for a humane society.Related ElsewhereSee our earlier coverage of the Alabama gambling referendum, "An Education Gamble | After defeating an Alabama lottery-for-schools plan, Christians ponder how to improve public education" (Nov. 10, 1999).Yesterday we ran a review of Colson's latest book, How Now Shall We Live?Charles Colson's earlier columns include:

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  • Scout's Dishonor, November 15, 1999
  • What Are We Doing Here?, October 4, 1999
  • How Evil Became Cool, August 9, 1999
  • Does Kosovo Pass the Just-War Test?, May 24, 1999
  • Why We Should Be Hopeful, April 26, 1999
  • Moral Education After Monica, March 1, 1999
  • The Sky Isn't Falling, January 11, 1999
  • Poster Boy for Postmodernism, November 16, 1998
  • Evangelicals Are Not an Interest Group, October 5, 1998
  • The Devil in the DNA, August 10, 1998
  • The Oxford Prophet, June 15, 1998
  • Why Fidelity Matters, April 27, 1998
  • Do We Love Coke More Than Justice?, March 2, 1998
  • Madison Avenue's Spiritual Chic, January 12, 1998
  • Colson Archives

Colson's daily radio program, Breakpoint, is also available online.January 10, 2000, Vol. 44, No. 1, Page 96

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Charles Colson
Charles Colson was the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, an outreach to convicts, victims of crime, and justice officers. Colson, who converted to Christianity before he was indicted on Watergate-related charges, became one of evangelicalism's most influential voices. His books included Born Again and How Now Shall We Live? A Christianity Today columnist since 1985, Colson died in 2012.
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