Religion Quiz: So you think you know
Religious groups still hold moral cards as nation bets on gambling, casinos

by David Briggs

June 10, 2014

What is the one message government sends to Americans on a daily basis?

"Buy a lottery ticket," says the Rev. Tom Grey, a United Methodist minister who for more than two decades has been on the front lines of religious coalitions to oppose legalized gambling.

It has not been an easy task.

The ubiquitous television and radio lottery ads promising wealth and leisure even when odds for the biggest jackpots fall somewhere between being struck by lightning and becoming the next LeBron James are just one sign of how far religious groups have been pushed to the sidelines in public policy debates over legalized gambling.

The old civic coalition of government and religious groups against gambling has crumbled. Today, only two states, Hawaii and Utah, have no legalized gambling. Lottery sales and casinos take in some $100 billion a year.

Yet, even as state and city legislators increasingly set aside moral objections to pursue gambling revenue, congregations retain an effective voice in their spiritual homes, research suggests.

More than four in five respondents to the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey said their congregation at least somewhat discourages gambling, with six in 10 reporting their spiritual home forbids or strongly discourages the practice.

Evangelical and black Protestants were two-and-a-half to three times more likely than individuals with no religious affiliation to say gambling is always wrong, according to the 2006 Faith Matters Survey.

And that influence appears to have a protective effect on their flocks.

Consider these findings:

  • People who attend church regularly and have a high percentage of close friends in the congregation are among the least likely Americans to have gambling problems, according to a study on religion and gambling analyzing data from the Portraits of American Life Study. Add the pastor as a close friend, and the odds are even greater people will not lose their shirts – or homes – at the roulette wheel or betting on the Final Four, sociologists Christopher Ellison of the University of Texas at San Antonio and Michael McFarland of the University of Texas at Austin found.

  • A study of nearly 500 adult gamblers ages 50 and older found people who participated in religious services were significantly less likely to have been a problem gambler at any point in their lives. Researchers reporting the findings in the Journal of Aging and Mental Health said it is plausible that older gamblers may not participate in many activities other than betting that offer a sense of excitement or challenge.

  • Another study of 249 predominantly Hispanic adults in New Mexico found individuals who participated frequently in religious activities were significantly less likely to gamble or to spend more than they can afford gambling.

Proponents of legalized gambling say it is a form of entertainment that creates jobs and boosts tax revenues. But opposition to gambling is often widespread within the pews, both among conservatives concerned about the potential moral "enslavement" of individuals and liberals focused on the state attempting to balance its budget on the backs of the poor, who are most likely to be tempted to see games like lotteries as a chance for financial freedom.

In the Faith Matters Survey, participants considered strong Democrats and strong Republicans were more likely than weak Democrats or weak Republicans to say gambling is always wrong.

"The tidal wave of gambling in our country," the Southern Baptist Convention declared, "has left in its wake pain and destruction in the lives of countless people, especially the children, poor and elderly."

But the lottery keeps expanding and the casinos keep coming – including the four new casinos that opened in Ohio in 2012.

And the groundswell can at times seem to overwhelm religious groups, says Grey, who for many years was executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling.

"The church was easy in some ways for the gambling people to take out" because it was wary of being seen as imposing its morality in a more individualistic culture, Grey said.

Yet, with a great deal of research showing gambling problems increase with greater availability and that the people most likely to suffer are the poor and the disadvantaged, religious groups ought to be galvanized on behalf "of the last, the least and the lost," Grey says.

What should give religious leaders and congregations hope is that the odds are not stacked against them in their houses of worship. Instead, research indicates faith groups can have a strong influence protecting members from the ills associated with gambling.

Religious leaders and congregations may even want to borrow a popular manifesto of the lottery industry as they decide whether to enter into dialogue with their spiritual and civic communities about the moral and social issues surrounding gambling.

You can’t win if you don’t play.

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