Games of chance seem to pervade every society and intrigue all men. The idea taking a chance and getting something for nothing has universal appeal. If gambling is an “instinct,” it must arise from the drive for self-fulfillment. Human potential can never be realized without risk. A person who chooses to grow chooses also the risk of losing. Love itself, then, becomes a gamble: a person who loves creates not only the potential for his own fulfillment but also the risk that he may be destroyed. And the greater the love, the greater the gamble. There is a sense in which Christians are called to be the greatest gamblers of all. Jesus actually commended a gambler whose talents paid off ten to one.

In gambling, the willingness to take a risk is twisted by the desire to get something for nothing. Gambling is, then, a sin of perverted stewardship. It is parasitic, producing no personal growth, achieving no social good. Even the strongest advocates of gambling agree that gambling is a non-productive human activity. It must be justified either by its entertainment value or by the use of its revenues for worthy purposes.

Public opinion about gambling moves in waves. At the present time, there are powerful pressures to make the United States a gambling society with games ranging from church bingo to a nation-wide lottery. The immediate reaction of evangelical Christians is alarm and revulsion. But an emotional reaction will probably accomplish little. There is a need for a clear, fact-founded position. As chairman of the Governor’s Ad Hoc Committee on Gambling for the State of Washington, I had to think through a position on gambling in order to defend my minority statement in the committee’s report.

A starting point is to recognize that a scriptural position on gambling must be derived by inference, not prescription. Arguments based on the stewardship of resources are strong but not conclusive. If affluent Christians evoked the principle of not spending their money except for bread, their conspicuous consumption would make much more sermon material than games of chance in which they do not participate. Perhaps Jesus would have more to say about the stewardship of an affluent church than about the Roman soldiers’ shooting craps for his clothes at the Cross. Ironically, he might point out how the Holy Spirit worked through a game of chance when Matthias was chosen to replace Judas as a disciple.

During the mercantile period in the Middle Ages, insurance was invented for merchants who sent their goods to sea against the odds that the ships would be attacked by pirates. Church fathers opposed insurance because God controlled the destiny of ships as well as men. Not only did insurance show a lack of faith—it was gambling on the will of God. But today Christians do not consider insurance an “actuarial numbers racket”; it is used as an example of commendable stewardship planning.

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Recognizing that the definition of gambling has changed, Christians must currently be concerned about three types: social, professional, and governmental. “Social gambling” emphasizes the entertainment value of games of chance. By legal definition, this means that the participants enter the game on “equal” terms. There is neither a professional operator nor a “house cut” against which the participants have to compete. For example, four friends sit down for an evening of cards in the home of one of the players. Even though the stakes may conceivably rise to thousands of dollars, it is “social gambling” because the players remain on equal terms. In most instances, this form of gambling is recognized as an individual’s privilege.

“Social gambling” has been extended to organized games, particularly bingo and raffles, as a modest and easily controlled expression of human desire. Sympathy and public pressure, however, identify bingo with charitable and non-profit institutions, primarily the Roman Catholic Church, which uses the proceeds for religious or charitable purposes. Because of this sympathy and pressure, it can be expected that gambling will be reintroduced to the American public through the door of the church. A reporter asked me, “Will bingo be the trunk upon which a tree of gambling will be built?” Regretfully I had to answer, “Yes.”

Gambling in charitable and non-profit institutions is indefensible for more than the reason that it sets the precedent for other forms of gambling. I have heard the advocates of church bingo oppose state lotteries on the grounds that the government should not use gambling as a substitute for responsible tax reform. This argument boomerangs on them. It is less defensible for the church to use gambling as a substitute for responsible stewardship than for the state to use it as a substitute for responsible taxation. If gambling is a non-productive human activity, no charitable end will justify the parasitic means.

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“Professional gambling” is a step up from “social gambling.” The difference is the introduction of a gambling parlor, a professional operator, and what is called a “house cut” of the proceeds. This is the point at which controls break down and organized crime enters. This kind of gambling is big business and worth the risk of gambling speculators. Their ability to provide the capital for gambling houses, the expertise for professional operators, and credit to the players cannot be matched. That is just the beginning of the problem. The intrusion of syndicated interests into gambling leads to the bribing of public officials. The record of enforcement of gambling makes a sordid history. The stakes become so great that enforcement officials can be given handsome pay-offs as normal expenses for the gambling operation. Although public opinion still tends to be negative toward Nevada-type slot machines, they are easier to control than professional dealers at a card table. Then, the potential for crime and corruption must be joined by the temptation for operators to “cheat” on individual games. Of all the control problems, this is the most difficult. As an assistant attorney general told our committee, “the possibility of cheating in gambling is limited only by the human imagination.”

Corruption and cheating plague charitable bingo games as well as professional gambling activities. Charitable bingo is a multi-million-dollar business that requires stringent controls and constant surveillance to keep it honest. Bingo-sponsoring churches must face the question whether they are polluting the moral climate as well as subverting their principles of stewardship.

If “social” or “professional gambling” is inevitable, history dictates the controls that are absolutely necessary to reduce crime, corruption, and cheating. A powerful and independent gambling commission must be created. Uniform state regulations must be adopted that do not permit towns, cities, or counties to set their own rules or choose their own games. Enforcement must come from both state and local levels as a check-and-balance on corruption. Gambling premises, operators, and games must be rigidly screened and licensed to keep out organized crime. Books of the gambling operation must be audited at the point where the money first passes from the player to the operator if “skimming” of the profits is to be controlled. Penalties on violators must be heavy and automatic. Finally, controls must be set on each type of gambling to minimize cheating by the operators. When the public chooses to gamble, it also chooses crime, corruption, and cheating. These elements can be reduced at best, not eliminated.

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“Government gambling” must be considered by a different set of rules. State-wide lotteries are becoming popular indicators of the public’s desire to gamble and the state’s need for money. Arguments in favor of government lotteries usually include the opinion that they are a non-criminal, non-corruptible, non-cheating form of entertainment that will produce funds for worthy purposes. In New York State, for instance, the lottery was promoted as a means for increasing aid to education.

It is true that state-wide lotteries are comparatively free from the abuses of “social” and “professional gambling.” Other concerns, however, make lotteries a questionable form of “government gambling.” The basic question is, Should the government be involved in gambling? Advocates will show that most governments are already involved in the promotion as well as the control of certain human vices, such as liquor or horse racing. Those who oppose state lotteries will immediately respond by asking whether the fact of involvement makes it right and whether that involvement should be extended. One thing is certain: when the state becomes a gambling operator with a lottery, some principles of government have to change.

First, the state must promote gambling as a business. Studies of state-wide lotteries show they can succeed only if the state approaches the lottery as a consumer product. In the first year of operation, lottery revenues are large because of its novelty. At the close of the second year, however, the proceeds are usually cut in half. To avoid some of the loss, the state must keep novelty in marketing the product and provide improved chances for pay-out. Frankly speaking, a government does not have the market mentality needed to make the lottery a success.

Second, the entertainment value of lotteries is secondary to the expected increases in revenues. Lotteries may be a convenient and socially acceptable form of gambling for the public, but the major reason for them is political: they are designed to provide additional revenues in a time of “tax rebellion.” Yet a study by the Fund for the City of New York concluded that lotteries were an unreliable source of income. A research analyst put it bluntly: “At its best, a state lottery is good for five or ten years.” Not only that, but the start-up costs and the continuing administrative machinery of such a short-term operation make the investment questionable. A well-run lottery will be based upon 45 per cent of the revenues for prizes, 40 per cent for the state, and 15 per cent for administration. It also requires annual betting of $8 to $10 for every person in the state. Even then, the amount of aid for state treasuries is almost negligible in comparison with the needs. In the State of Washington, for instance, a mathematically designed lottery would provide approximately $13 million for the state in the first year. This is less than 1 per cent of the annual budget. From either the short- or long-range view of revenues, a lottery is difficult to defend.

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Third, lotteries are also advocated as a means of undercutting the illegal numbers racket. Admitting the failure of law enforcement, some states have decided to compete with organized crime for the multi-million-dollar gambling market. It is assumed that a legal game will run the law-breakers out of business. Nothing is further from the truth. To use New York State again as an example, the state lottery has actually been used by organized crime to enhance the numbers racket. To obtain the revenues promised for education in the state and still pay out a modest percentage on prizes, the state charges fifty cents for a lottery ticket. The numbers racket, however, only charges twenty-five cents per ticket, provides a more attractive payout, and gives credit to the customers. The fact is that private enterprise, even in gambling, is always more efficient than government bureaucracy.

Many states do not have threatening “numbers” operations. Therefore, the argument is that a lottery is intended to provide revenues rather than to undercut crime. Initially, this may be the case. Organized crime, however, is interested in extending the tentacles of its influence wherever profits make the venture worthwhile. As a successful competitor with state lotteries, a new lottery might actually attract several illegal numbers games. While the advocates of lotteries would call “foul” on this argument, the implications of a decision for a lottery cannot be ignored.

Fourth, a state-wide lottery requires the cultivation of a new gambling market. Researchers point out that lotteries are played by middle-class whites rather than poor blacks. This finding does not make the lottery a respectable game. The poor can play illegal numbers for one-half the price of the state’s ticket, if numbers games are available. If not, the lottery invites the poor to play, and it becomes a form of “regressive taxation” on the poor.

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In either case, the lottery must be promoted by the creation of new gambling markets. No lottery can succeed on the number of people in the state who already gamble. Young and old, poor and rich, black and white must be counted upon to play the lottery if the operation succeeds. And so a greater question arises, Should the state create a gambling climate? The implications are far-reaching. Public morality, public safety, and respect for the law suddenly become issues that cannot be avoided. A “gambling attitude” does affect the quality of life in a state. It certainly would influence the response to people to the claims of Christ; even evangelism has a stake in the gambling issue. Lotteries are no more innocent than card rooms or slot machines.

What conclusions can be drawn to guide a Christian’s position on gambling? First, gambling is a vice that violates the principle of Christian stewardship. Although gambling is not specifically prohibited in Scripture, the non-productive use of resources, whether money or time, is poor stewardship. Christ said we would be called to account for the use of our resources, and there is little or no justification for letting chance rule our fortunes for selfish returns when Christ has called us to lose our lives for the sake of the Gospel.

Second, if social gambling is inevitable, controls should be demanded to limit crime, corruption, and cheating. Because evangelicals regard gambling as a black-and-white issue, there is a tendency to pull out of the war once the first battle is lost. This is not the time to quit! At the risk of misunderstanding, Christians should call for the controls of an independent gambling commission, uniform state laws, dual enforcement of laws at state and local levels, rigid licensing and standards, and heavy, automatic penalties for abuse in even such innocent games as charitable bingo. The least we can do is make law enforcement workable.

Third, professional gambling should be vigorously opposed by practical as well as moral arguments. Crime, corruption, and cheating accompany professional gambling. Irrefutable evidence also shows the connection between professional gambling and prostitution, drugs, and violence. Once the stakes are high enough, no system of controls can cope with the efficiency and subtlety of organized crime, or with its daring.

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Fourth, state-wide lotteries are a questionable means for controlling crime or producing state revenues. Under the pretense of satisfying the gambling instincts of respectable citizens, lotteries are political tools to win votes and increase revenues. When a senator announced that the gambling bill in our state would be passed at midnight on the day of the closing legislative session, an informed newsman told me, “He means that the vote on the gambling bill will be determined by a pay-off at midnight.” More is at stake than just a lottery for citizens who want to bet. Gambling is a corrupting yeast that contaminates the loaf from core to crust. Christians who give up when gambling is legalized will still have to accept responsibility for the quality of life in their city, county, or state. Even though gambling is wrong, the extent of gambling is still critical.

One lesson stands out from my experience as chairman of the Gambling Committee. As a Christian, I was overly cautious about being fair. Perhaps I was sensitive to a letter-to-the-editor that said the governor’s appointment of a minister to chair the Gambling Committee was like the Pope’s appointing the devil to guard the Holy Font. In one sense, my concern for fairness was wise, because I eventually earned the right to speak without being discounted as a minister. The only trouble was that no one else was fair. Flags of vested interests were flown at full mast from the beginning. At one time, the heat of debate produced the veiled threat that the committee’s work was useless anyway because money and votes would ultimately decide the gambling issue. At any rate, I lost my timidity about speaking from my convictions as a citizen and as a Christian. And most of the committee members seemed to be waiting for someone with the nerve to speak with moral conviction.

Whether Christian or not, the roots of our spiritual heritage have not been cut. Christians in the twentieth century can still help keep those roots alive.

George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”

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