Despite pressure from some religious groups, gambling continues to flourish.
Religion does not everywhere and always condemn gambling. But the preponderance of belief among faith communities is that gambling often is a social evil and should be resisted.

Then why do most states sponsor and promote gambling? Does the opposition of religious groups mean nothing? Do members of various faith communities not push the issue much? Have people convinced themselves that the benefits – such as money for public education and more jobs – outweigh the costs and overcome moral objections?

Jobs are a prominent argument in favor of legalized gambling. But many experts make a persuasive case that the societal costs of gambling invariably outweigh the benefits.

Opposition to legalized gambling is an area in which religious people and people with no faith commitments can work together. Each group may act out of different motives, but if they share the same goal, motives don’t become much of an issue.

Christian opposition to gambling is substantial but not universal.

Catholics, for instance, are more ready to countenance its use as long as it doesn’t lead to destructive behavior. It’s one reason former Democratic New York Gov. Mario Cuomo came to the defense last year of author Bill Bennett, a fellow Catholic who has been active in Republican politics. Bennett, known for his writing about virtue, acknowledged being a big-stakes gambler and said he’d give it up because it was a bad model to set.

“Gambling,” Cuomo said, “is not a sin. It’s not illegal.”

Judaism does not condemn gambling across the board, either, though even in the game of chance called dreidel, played at Hanukkah, there is an innate Jewish concern for fairness. The way many Jews are taught to play dreidel requires that when one person has won everything (matchsticks, pennies, peanuts or even chocolates), the pot is redivided evenly.

Rabbi Daniel Horwitz, president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City, says Judaism doesn’t object to such things as raffles, but historically “those who gambled for a living were virtually always regarded as inherently untrustworthy and their testimony was not accepted in rabbinic courts.” He says Judaism condemns any gambling that becomes a regular practice because it takes time away from studying Torah and living by its commandments.

But in a country in which most (about 53 percent) people still identify themselves as Protestant Christians of one sort or another, the anti-gambling ethic has a long history. The Bible does not specifically condemn gambling – as does, for instance, Islam’s holy book, the Quran – but it does provide standards many Christians use as arguments against legalized gambling.

The late author and financial adviser Larry Burkett, a popular personality on Christian radio, says the “primary argument against Christians gambling is spiritual. To entice someone to gain money at the certain loss of another violates virtually every principle taught by Christ. It breeds selfishness, greed and covetousness and, in fact, promotes them.”

One of religion’s concerns about gambling is that it preys on the weak and poor – the very people identified in much sacred writing as the apple of God’s eye.

Islamic antipathy to gambling is rooted in a similar concern. When Maryland’s legislature held hearings on gambling last year, Raeed Tayeh, public affairs director of the Muslim American Society’s Freedom Foundation, described Muslim opposition this way: “As people of faith, we deal with the aftermath of gambling: the destruction of families, the impoverishment.”

But perhaps the most central religious argument against gambling is that it breeds idolatry.

In testimony several years ago before the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, Jaydee R. Hanson, a top official of the United Methodist Church, said that “gambling is one of the ways we place other things above God.”

My own inadequate theory about gambling’s popularity is that government sees it as an easy source of revenue from what might be called volunteer taxpayers, and most people have no clue about odds. In the long run, gamblers in aggregate always lose.

The mystery is why – in a country full of people whose religions discourage gambling – the government that represents those people entices people to play. Something is oddly out of sync.
Bill Tammeus is an editorial page columnist for The Kansas City Star.

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