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.