Gambling as Social Vice

August 2, 2017

Gambling as Social Vice

The Washington Post published a breezily entertaining if also distressing examination of the new $1.4 billion casino on the Potomac just outside the city in suburban Maryland. Focusing on the atmospherics instead of the gambling, the casino is likened to a suburban mall, with restaurants and shops, including a Shake Shack, a theater where Barry Manilow croons, and endless corridors curiously scented with vanilla. The mammoth casino overlooking the river bank resembles at night a “glowing beached ship.”

To me, living across the river, almost within view, in casino-free Virginia, this temple of vice and legalized larceny glows more like a melting down nuclear reactor, ignited by the iniquities within, and exuding corrupting radioactivity into the surrounding community. Or at least that’s my unvarnished view as a Methodist!

Moral and religious objections to gambling are not so common any more. Casinos are now more regularly opposed by communities as undesirable neighbors, like a power station, sanitation treatment plant, homeless shelter, or clinic for drug addicts. They maybe be societally needed, but preferably in someone else’s neighborhood. Most of the Washington area’s wealthier suburbs would not tolerate a nearby casino, though they may tolerate the tax revenues.

To the extent moral objections endure, they typically focus on broad social ills engendered by legalized gambling. The poor are victimized, addictions are fueled, and resources are drained from more productive industries, while alcoholism, drug abuse, bankruptcies and crime often increase.

Most Protestant traditions in America have historically opposed gambling, especially Methodists, who inherited the social reforming zeal of the old Puritans without the theocratic ambitions. John Wesley referred briefly if contemptuously to “gamesters of various kinds” who “were of the lowest and vilest class, commonly called gamblers; who make a trade of seizing on young and unexperienced men, and tricking them out of all their money; and after they have beggared them, they frequently teach them the same mystery of iniquity,” instead of more “honestly to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow and the labour of their hands.”


Recently a friend at church, recalling his own visit to the new, glowing casino across the river, ostensibly for dining, not gambling, bemusedly noted that many stereotypes were fulfilled by some gambling patrons, resembling scenes from a Methodist anti-gambling propaganda film of decades ago.

No doubt.

Methodism sustained its outspoken rejection of gambling many years after it went virtually silent on liquor, theater-going, sabbath breaking, cigarettes, profanity, dancing, salacious literature, and many other personal vices that long were Methodist preoccupations. The Social Gospel and subsequent liberation theologies were less interested in personal morality and preferred focus on societal sins. This emphasis entailed political advocacy and mostly condemning other people, or society as a whole, without a lot of reflection about individual sins. Right opinions displaced the pursuit of right behavior and the right hearts to sustain it.

In some ways more conservative churches have adopted a somewhat similar approach, abandoning the evangelical subculture’s longtime strong opposition to behaviors not specifically proscribed by scripture, in favor of a more permissive, ecumenical perspective. Probably most Christians who today avoid gambling do so not because their churches preach against its immorality but because they sensibly prefer to devote time and resources elsewhere. Casinos and gambling have receded in some previous areas of strength, like Las Vegas and Atlantic City, as businesses realize customers prefer other entertainments and communities realize gambling is often more economically draining than enriching.

Mostly forgotten is that much of Christian opposition to gambling and similar pursuits was concern over stewardship of both money and time. God would judge the waste of either! Indeed, time was more precious than money because it was irreplaceable. John Wesley, who would now be labelled anal retentive, famously was obsessive in his careful husbandry of money and time. Samuel Johnson recalled he always enjoyed conversation with Wesley but frustratingly never got enough of it. Wesley was always on his way somewhere. He did not shoot the breeze.

Wesley may’ve been too obsessive but his productivity on behalf of God and humanity was remarkable. In contrast, the new casino on the Potomac is unlikely to broaden minds and hearts towards greater service to others. Few souls will be ennobled. Time and money expended there will detract from families, marriages, friendships, churches, charities, education, honest labor, enriching hobbies, and productive commercial enterprise. It will instead be a social, cultural, spiritual and economic vortex. The casino may gleam at night but it is a black hole.

And such black holes, even if scented with vanilla and hosting a Shake Shack, still merit preaching against.

8 Responses to Gambling as Social Vice

  1. Dan says:

    So I should or should not expect to see bingo night at a progressive UMC near me? 🙂

    BTW, one of the best cures for gambling is to take a course in probability and statistics, although it somehow never quite sinks in to everybody that you’re more likely to be struck by lightning walking to your car after buying a Powerball ticket than you are to have the winning ticket. I guess the spirit of “you can’t win if you don’t play” is more enticing than the cold, hard probabilistic facts.

  2. johnqpublic says:

    No mention that our president is an ex casino operator, very popular with people who call themselves Christians? Just one of the many many ways this president works in ways that are pretty much the opposite of Jesus’ message.

  3. Lloyd Fleming says:

    Maybe if you would leave progressive Methodists alone, God wouldn’t visit such plagues on you.

    • Dan says:

      Everyone who has a heart for the lost and unchurched should reach out to progressive Methodists (aka Moralistic Therapeutic Deists) and care about their salvation.

  4. RonT says:

    With Pick 3, Pick 4, mid day 3, mid day 4, Power Ball, and Mega Millions, Virgina may be casino free, BUT????? Guess the camel got his/her nose under the tent some time ago without indignation!

  5. Mark says:

    Poker rooms can provide a lot of enjoyment for many folks without much casino vig (rake) involved. State lotteries have terrible odds versus casinos. I enjoy IRD but please remember that you can’t legislate morals. Peace be with you.

  6. Bob Ford says:

    One of my church members in NJ had participated in hosting the Nation Peach Growers in Atlantic City. I asked him whether he did any gambling while there.

    He answered, “Farming is gambling enough for me!”

  7. David Phillips says:

    I always enjoy reading you, Mark, but couldn’t your criticisms also be directed at many other forms of entertainment?

    I object to gambling because the game tends to bring out the love of money.

    Note I still appreciated this article.

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