Caesar’s Palace didn’t have slot machines in the age of the apostles, so it’s not surprising that there is no explicit, direct, biblical prohibition of casino gambling. How then should Christians in America think about the growing trend of regional casinos?
For some Christian groups, the answers is based on their opposition to all forms of gambling. My own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, calls on “all Christians to exercise their influence by refusing to participate in any form of gambling or its promotion.” However, other traditions, such as the Catholic Church, take a more nuanced position. The catechism states,
Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others. The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant. (Catechism 2413)
A more thorough treatment is provided in the Catholic Encyclopedia, which lists four conditions that theologians commonly require for gaming to be illicit:
• What is staked must belong to the gambler and must be at his free disposal. It is wrong, therefore, for the lawyer to stake the money of his client, or for anyone to gamble with what is necessary for the maintenance of his wife and children.
• The gambler must act freely, without unjust compulsion.
• There must be no fraud in the transaction, although the usual ruses of the game may be allowed. It is unlawful, accordingly, to mark the cards, but it is permissible to conceal carefully from an opponent the number of trump cards one holds.
• Finally, there must be some sort of equality between the parties to make the contract equitable; it would be unfair for a combination of two expert whist players to take the money of a couple of mere novices at the game.
These are reasonable conditions which Christians from any tradition can agree with. So how does casino gaming measure up against this standard? A new report by the Council on Casinos shows that casinos fail to meet even this basic standard of morality.
Here then are five reasons, based on the report and the four moral criteria listed above, why Christians should oppose most, if not all, forms of casino gambling in America:
1. Casinos target the poor — Throughout most of the twentieth-century, legal casino gambling in the U.S. existed in only two locations — Nevada and Atlantic City, N.J. – and was considered a largely upper-class activity. Today, 23 states have commercial casinos and low-income workers, retirees, minorities, and the disabled include disproportionately large shares of regional casino patrons.
2. Casinos prey upon patrons enslaved by the unjust compulsion of addiction — Problem gamblers account for 40 to 60 percent of slot machine revenues, according to studies conducted over the past decade or so. A large-scale study in 2004 found that people who live within 10 miles of a casino have twice the rate of pathological and problem gambling as those who do not.
3. Slot machines are rigged against gamblers – Unlike the old Vegas-style resorts, the new regional casinos depend decisively on attracting gamblers who play modern slot machines. In 1978, outside of Nevada, there were virtually no legal slot machines in the United States. By 2010, there were about 947,000. In 2013, the percentage of casinos’ total gambling revenue deriving from slot machines is estimated at 62 to 80 percent, with racinos (racetrack casinos) getting 90 percent of their take from slots.
Modern slot machines are programmed for fast, continuous, and repeat betting. Players insert plastic, not coins; they tap buttons or touch a screen rather than pull levers; they place bets in denominations ranging from a penny to a hundred dollars on multiple lines that spin across a screen with each rapid tap of the button. The laws of pure chance or probability no longer dictate wins and losses on slot machines. Modern slots are hooked up to a central server that collects player information, preferences, and speed of play and has the capacity to program each machine to each player’s style. The trend in slot design is to provide a slow and smooth “ride,” with small wins that are less than the amount bet, but nonetheless encourage repeat bets and prolonged “time on machine.”
4. State governments and private casinos conspire against communities — A study that looked at the spread of casino gambling in 300 Metropolitan Statistical Areas found that the presence of a casino reduces voluntarism, civic participation, family stability, and other forms of social capital within 15 miles of a community where it is located. Another study of members of Gamblers Anonymous found that upwards of 26 percent have gambling-related divorces or separations.
States therefore have strong incentives to protect their citizens from the encroachment of casinos. Yet since the 1990s they have worked with private businesses in ways that harm communities. States typically legalize casino gambling by changing state constitutions. They create regional monopolies for the casinos. They regulate lightly and often in ways that discriminate against other legal businesses. They rescue casinos from bankruptcy. In short, without the legal, administrative, regulatory, and promotional advantages provided by state governments, casinos would not be spreading into mainstream American life as they are today and would likely still exist only on the fringes of the society.
As the Council on Casinos report concludes, “Evidence from the health and social sciences suggests that the new American casinos are associated with a range of negative health, economic, political, intellectual, and social outcomes. For this reason, we view state sponsorship of casino gambling as a regressive and damaging policy.”
We shouldn’t stand idly by and allow our neighbors to be robbed by the state-approved one-armed bandits. Wherever we stand on the morality of gambling, Christians should at a minimum be able to agree that state governments should not be using their power to sponsor and spread casino gaming. If we love our neighbors we will oppose this most nefarious form of crony capitalism and require that states stop propping up community-destroying casinos.