September 24, 2019

Sin City & Liberal Protestant Integralism

Against all my preferences, last week I visited Las Vegas for the first time, invited to speak to Religion News Writers Association, meeting in a casino hotel. On two consecutive nights I walked the casino strip, in all its garish splendor. The atmosphere and crowd were not nearly as seedy as I anticipated. There were lots of families and children. The streets were clean, and people were orderly. There was little public intoxication, and not a lot of public sexuality, except for pink feathered, scantily clad flamingo women offering photo poses. Mainstream touristy gift shops and restaurants lined the streets. It all resembled more a theme park for middle America than Gomorrah.

Old downtown Las Vegas more resembled the shambling seediness and decadence I expected. Inebriated, addicted and desperate people were more visible, in scenes very different from the strip’s clientele of upper middle class affluence. Nearby cheap motels housed visitors who perhaps lack the resources to gamble but do anyway. As I left town, I stopped at a 7-11, which like everywhere else had slot machines, busy even at 7am Sunday, the patrons looking impoverished, serious and sad. I was happy to leave Las Vegas.

In my ride home from the airport in DC, my 25 year old Indian American driver told me he had been in Las Vegas last year, originally scheduled for a week visit, but induced by offers of a free hotel room to stay one month. The hotel casino’s generosity was motivated by his total loss of $120,000. His wealthy father in India paid the debt. But many gamblers don’t have wealthy fathers. The driver said he no longer gambles. Leaving the car, I urged him never to return to Vegas.

At the Religion News Writers Conference, a panel of Las Vegas clergy explained their attitude towards gambling. Only the Muslim, citing the Koran, criticized “gaming.” A conservative Church of Christ pastor, saying many of his church members worked for the gaming industry, declared the Bible was silent about it. This truncated view of morality that equates absence of specific biblical condemnation with a green light has a bad history. Slavery’s defenders, also backed by economics, argued likewise.

American Mainline Protestantism originally had a wider vision of Christian ethics and society, which included opposition to gambling. They saw its assault on the poor who were driven into further poverty, and in the vulnerable prone to addictions. They also saw its wider intersection with corruption, crime, prostitution, alcoholism and drugs. From the 19th century through the mid 20th century, Mainline Protestantism advocated a righteous society in which laws protected public morality and the vulnerable.

Sometimes their social vision arguably exceeded what was realistic. Prohibition could not be sustained. The Blue Laws mandating business closures on Sunday largely ended several decades ago. The Comstock Laws banning contraceptives and the mailing of salacious literature died in the 1960s. Prohibitions on pornography have been outflanked by the Internet. Laws against prostitution, long legal in Nevada, and recreational drugs, are under attack now nationally. (Outside a casino I was approached by a spashily dressed young woman who was a probably a prostitute, a trade into which she was likely coerced when young and vulnerable.)

The retreat of Mainline Protestant civic righteousness left a vacuum in which autonomous individualism asserted rights to what were regarded as vices. A spiritual vision of the common good is increasingly replaced by empowered individuals and identity politics, focused on demands for affirmation. Some conservative Catholics, distressed by radical individualism’s disregard for the common good, have loosely associated with Integralism, which envisions a society where the Church is paramount, and its ethics, informed by natural law, instruct civil law, for the moral protection of all.

Mainline Protestantism’s earlier moral vision for American society wasn’t Integralist. Divided by denominations, Protestantism didn’t look to any church institution or hierarchy for ultimate instruction. It was instead classically liberal, relying on morally earnest citizens to enact laws and public stances that uplifted all society, seeking moral restraints from vice, and protections for the most vulnerable.

That Protestant classically liberal moral consensus faded with the collapse of Mainline Protestantism after centuries of ascendancy. Evangelicals, Catholics and other traditionalists don’t have the historical capital easily to replace it. Integralism and other illiberal critiques are responses to the spiritual void in civic life but ultimately are at odds with the vision and trajectory of American self-understanding.

A viable new moral and spiritual consensus will have to build on America’s democratic and classically liberal identity, in which individuals seek their own prosperity and the public good, based on transcendent moral order. The old Mainline Protestant social consensus has much to teach about success and failure, overreach and genuine insight. America may always have Las Vegas, but it should never want to become Las Vegas.


6 Responses to Sin City & Liberal Protestant Integralism

  1. kertime says:

    The gambling I remember in scripture: the soldiers at the foot of the cross

  2. joe m says:

    “It all resembled more a theme park for middle America than Gomorrah.” Which suggests they’ve both moved closer to each other.

  3. C says:

    I heard an evangelical pastor once say that when you’re flying into Vegas, there’s a feeling of excitement on the plane. When you’re flying out of Vegas, it’s silent.

    I remember visiting Vegas as a kid back in the late 80s and being amazed that walking down the Strip at night was like walking along it during the day; it was that bright. But it makes sense that they have to keep that as pristine as possible since so much of the local economy relies on tourism and conferences.

    But this does bring up a related issue: States approving casinos for the tax revenue, which is always promised to go to noble things like education. For example, Atlantic City started to become a shadow of its former self after PA and WV allowed them, and when MD did via referendum the biggest advertisers against it were casino owners in PA and WV.

  4. David Gingrich says:

    “Inebriated, addicted and desperate people were more visible, in scenes very different from the strip’s clientele of upper middle class affluence.” I have had to spend a week in Las Vegas, twice a year, to attend trade shows. It is a miserable, soul-less place. And I would posit that those upper middle class people suffer from inebriation, addiction and desperation as much as the folks in the dingier areas.

  5. Mark,
    As one of those on the walk with you down the strip and to the fountains, I think you’ve captured well the actual foundations beneath that experience. I also recall sitting in the informative early morning session at the RNA conference listening to the research report from Catholic scholars about the actual realities of sexual harassment among Catholic seminaries (w around 6% having any direct alleged experience while there and slightly lower than 10% having any so knowledge). Though the numbers are still too high, many seemed surprised of the single-digit response, and were thankful for the careful survey analysis. However, what didn’t escape many of us was the incongruity of this report w the environs, having just passed three huge LED panels advertising SEXXY between the hotel elevator and the conference room. To your point—families were passing through the slot-filled lobby w it’s Elvis bronze. Overall, the RNA conference proves annually to be rather important for those interested in the pulse of religion reporting. Perhaps this is best summarized in the awards ceremony the final night and the melange of brilliant reports — and emceed by the highly respected Jeff Diamant (PewRI) and Pulitzer-Prize winning Peter Smith (Pitt-G). Next year the RNA conference is in DC, your backyard, and I hope you write another reflection. And, that even more religion journalists are able to benefit from the informative and diverse sessions.

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