Sin and money: In the Deep South, why one state seems more willing to embrace gambling

In my time with The Associated Press in Nashville, Tenn., I spent months covering the 2002 battle over a proposed state lottery.

Before Tennessee voters went to the polls that November, I wrote a story explaining why religious opponents had avoided portraying the referendum as a "moral issue."

From that story, which ran on the national political wire:

“To win, we could not make it a preacher issue,” said the Rev. Paul Durham, a Southern Baptist pastor and treasurer for the Gambling Free Tennessee Alliance. “We had to make it a truth issue.”
The campaign’s lack of Bible thumping reflects political and theological realities in the battle over lifting a constitutional ban on a lottery. Polls have consistently shown most Tennesseans – those in the pews and otherwise – see no inherent evil in the concept of a lottery.
“Since 47 states have gambling, I would have to think God’s not really against it,” said state Sen. Steve Cohen, a Democrat and the state’s chief lottery proponent.

As it turned out, the lottery proposal passed easily — winning support from 58 percent of the nearly 1.6 million Tennesseans who voted.

I was reminded of the Volunteer State's experience when I read a New York Times piece Sunday making the case that "Alabama's Longtime Hostility to Gambling Shows Signs of Fading." Among those pushing for a lottery vote: both major-party gubernatorial candidates nominated last week.

The Times' lede:

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Even more than its Bible Belt neighbors, Alabama has steadfastly resisted legalizing gambling for generations.
The clout of evangelical Christians helped make sure of it: Joe Godfrey, the top lobbyist for the state’s most powerful churches, once received an Inauguration Day promise from an influential politician that no proposal for gambling would make it through the State House while he was in office.
But the resistance is now openly fraying, suggesting that gambling is no longer a potent moral issue that animates voters and politicians the way it once did.
As the landscape shifts in Montgomery, the state capital, the consequences may reverberate across the South, where nearby states gladly rake in billions of dollars that Alabamians are not allowed to wager at home.

Contrast that scenario with this opening from an Oct. 14, 1999, Times report on Alabama voters rejecting a lottery:

Today was a day of jubilation for the churchgoers of Alabama. To the dismay of a clearly shaken Gov. Donald Siegelman, religious leaders led his plan for a state lottery to firm defeat in a referendum on Tuesday, and there was widespread rejoicing at their display of political force.
''Glory,'' said one woman who called in to a Christian radio station in Opelika this morning. ''The Lord was with us in the voting booth.''
Or, in the words of Bob Russell, chairman of the Alabama chapter of the Christian Coalition, ''The Red Sea just parted.''
For years, gambling's once-improbable march through the Bible Belt had seemed inexorable. There were casinos in Louisiana and Mississippi, lotteries in Georgia and Florida, and video poker machines in almost every gas station in South Carolina. Alabama had only dog racing and bingo, but after Mr. Siegelman was decisively elected last year on a platform consisting almost entirely of his proposal for a lottery, the state seemed ready to join its neighbors in the search for easy money.
That all changed on Tuesday, when the driving force behind the success of government-sponsored gambling -- the region's hostility to taxes -- ran directly into a rock that may be even stronger here: the power of the pulpit. There was barely a pastor in the state, of any denomination, who did not issue fiery instructions to defeat gambling as a moral corruption and an injustice to the poor. When 54 percent of the voters did just that, both sides agreed that the church's role had been decisive.

But what is the church's role in 2018 — nearly two decades later? Will it be as decisive?

The Times does an excellent job of delving into that question.

I found this analysis particularly insightful:

No single theory has won out to explain why Alabama’s anti-gambling fervor may have ebbed.
Some see a creeping secularization in what has long been one of America’s most churchgoing states, or wonder whether voters and elected officials alike have simply grown exhausted by the issue. Others see rising voter frustration over how Alabamians wind up padding the budgets of other states when they cross borders to buy Powerball tickets or play blackjack.
And there is the reality that plenty of people who stay in Alabama are placing bets already. Illegal, untaxed gambling is thought to be widespread, and the state’s three tribal casinos, limited as they are in what they can offer, attract patrons from all over Alabama. A local minister was known to drive Harper Lee, the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” to one of them before she died in 2016.
Mr. Godfrey, the church lobbyist and executive director of the interdenominational Alabama Citizens Action Program, said the coalition against legalized gambling had fractured.
“It used to be that we could count on the Republicans and the business community to fight, but we’ve lost the Republicans, we’ve lost the business community,” Mr. Godfrey said at the group’s offices in Birmingham. “The churches will be the last line of defense — that’s the only firewall left.”

It's a fascinating story. Read it all.

What's missing? Personally, I'd love to read a more in-depth exploration of the question of whether church leaders still view gambling as a sin, and if so, why? And if not, why not? 

The Times hits briefly at that question:

Even so, some Christians and their leaders said they were comfortable with de-emphasizing gambling as an issue. The Rev. Neil Reynolds, the senior minister at the University Church of Christ in Tuscaloosa, said gambling, like alcohol, was not “an evil that’s going to ruin our community.”
“We are too often known for the things that we’re against, instead of the things we’re for and who we are,” Mr. Reynolds said in his office near the stadium of a Crimson Tide football program that many an Alabamian would bet on legally if they could. (Even Wayne Flynt, a Baptist minister and a professor emeritus of history at Auburn University, said the one bet he had made in his life had been a friendly $1 wager on Alabama.)

(A side note: Church of Christ ministers don't tend to use clergy titles, as noted by the Associated Press Stylebook.)

The statement concerning gambling and alcohol is interesting for sure. Is that the voice of one progressive minister? Or is it indicative of a wider sea change among Alabama church leaders. I don't know. But I'd love for an enterprising journalist to do some digging and try to find out.



Please respect our Commenting Policy