A Strong Warning

I’m not sure when Christians in Arizona stopped fighting and began embracing legal and public gambling.

Perhaps it started when Arizona voted to approve a lottery in November of 1980.  Perhaps it began in 1988 when Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to promote self-sufficiency and economic development for tribal governments.  Perhaps it was in the early 90’s when casinos began to operate in the state to help impoverished tribal members.

I can remember that Christians almost universally opposed these measures because we saw the harm that addictive gambling brings to families and specifically to impoverished families who are looking for a “quick fix” to their poverty but who end up digging themselves into a bigger hole.

This last week, Arizona signed into law the largest expansion of gambling in Arizona history.  It greatly expands the numbers of casinos (one is planned for the 303 and Northern Parkway in the west valley) and allows full Las Vegas style gambling in all Indian casinos.  It also adds additional sports betting “bookies,” many of which will operate right out of our (taxpayer supported) stadiums and arenas.  It appears likely that sports betting books will operate in conjunction with the Arizona Cardinals, Phoenix Suns, Arizona Diamondbacks, Phoenix Coyotes, Phoenix Raceway, and the PGA Tour’s TPC Scottsdale.

For the most part, as Christians, we said nothing while this was being planned.

I’m not blaming other Christians.  I, too, said nothing. 

Maybe we were all distracted by other issues that demanded our attention:  Mass killings, a rising racial divide, election issues, problems at the border, the pandemic, and anger over how to best handle the pandemic. 

Or maybe it snuck up on us because this was passed as an “emergency clause” so it could be implemented immediately without the typical waiting period.  I cannot see any logical reason why an otherwise slow-moving legislature would see an expansion of gambling as an emergency.  The Arizona Constitution defines emergency clauses as pertaining to “laws immediately necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health, or safety.”

How does expanded gambling qualify?

It may be too late to do something from a legal perspective, but it’s not too late to warn people of the dangers that come with this new law.  The bottom line is that I do not believe that encouraging and legalizing more forms of gambling is good public policy.  It hurts people and families.  And Christian leaders should warn people of the dangers.

For the record, I spent 13 years as a pastor on the fringes of a gambling community.  Though my church was in Arizona, I was only about 20 miles from Laughlin, Nevada.  While I was there, a casino operated by the Mohave Indians opened even much closer to my church.  I saw firsthand the benefits and the problems associated with gambling.  I believe the problems outweigh the benefits.

To be fair, I freely admit that some good was accomplished.  Yes, the gambling industry did provide jobs.  While it is true that most of the jobs were low-end service type jobs, jobs were created.  Yes, the industry did raise money for state governments.  Yes, the jobs did often benefit Native Americans and tribal governments.  And, yes, some people could limit their obsessions and have fun without destroying their lives. 

At the same time, though, the gambling industry contributed greatly to addictive behavior that destroyed individuals and families.  Gaming and drinking (the two go hand-in-hand) contributed to physically addictive behavior like alcoholism and psychologically addictive behavior such as gambling. 

I can’t count the numbers of families I personally counseled—many of them gaming industry employees—who were hurt by one or both of these addictions.  Children were neglected because mom or dad or both were drunk or at the casinos.  Rent couldn’t be paid and groceries couldn’t be purchased because hard-earned money was lost on gambling.  Travelers were stranded when they lost all of their money at the casinos.  Churches, non-profits, and government agencies designed to help people were pushed beyond their abilities and resources.

The lure of “all I need is one big win” turned otherwise reasonable people into unreasonable gamblers who risked far more than they should.  And this lure of free money combined with the lowered cognizant ability of people on alcohol (which is very heavily promoted at casinos for obvious reasons) leads to huge profits for casinos.

And it leads to destroyed families.

Adding in the new lure of sports gambling brings in an entire new group of people into the mix.  Sports fans (and I admit that I am one) tend to be obsessive, often irrational, and, obviously, fanatical.  That will lead to more profits for casinos and bookies.

And more destroyed families.

I am deeply disappointed by our state legislature and governor for passing and signing a law that will increase profits but lead to destructive behavior.  I do not believe they have acted wisely.  As Christians, we should have done more to warn them of the dangers of these new laws.

And for everyone else, I warn you that gambling is psychologically addictive.  It can and does destroy lives and families.  Once the addiction starts, it doesn’t usually stop until all resources are depleted.

I’ve seen it destroy people and families.

I don’t want it to destroy you.