Whenever I was testing boundaries, all it took was the look (affectionately known in our household as "the scowl") and I hopped back into line pretty quick. Not so much because the look was terrifying, though it was. But more because of what the look represented — eminent action.
On Oct. 13 the Internet gambling community got that look, as President Bush signed the Internet Gambling Prohibition and Enforcement Act into law.
Up until now, Internet gambling was already illegal. Surprised? You may well be. Many people I know, including many Christians, had no idea that online sport bets or Internet poker games were actually outlawed in this country.
That's because gambling sites — knowing that our government has preferred to go after gambling companies rather than individual gamblers — have purred into gamblers' ears that they are not doing anything illegal, forgetting to mention that the entire industry is — at least in the U.S. — illegal.
There are numerous federal and state laws prohibiting Internet gambling. To escape them, the providers simply locate offshore and out of the reach of American authority. All the while, raking in billions of U.S. gambling dollars, $6 billion in 2005 alone.
Now, however, the U.S. Congress has put it foot down. With the passage of this law, two major things have happened. First, the money has been cut off. Financial institutions — mainly credit card companies and banks — are prohibited from cooperating with illegal Internet gambling companies. Second, Web site operators (your Internet service provider) are prohibited from linking to illegal Internet gambling sites.
"The bottom line is simple: Internet gambling is illegal," said Senator Bill Frist. "Although we can't monitor every online gambler or regulate offshore gambling, we can police the financial institutions that disregard our laws."
No more money. No more links. Predictably, the gambling industry is upset. "The American people should be outraged!" said Michael Bolcerek, president of the Poker Players Alliance. "Allowing this bill to become law would run contrary to public opinion and would damage an already fractured relationship between the government and the electorate."
For me, I fail to be outraged that Congress actually decided to treat something that already is illegal as if it is illegal. But what about Bolcerek's point about public opinion? How do Americans — and Christians — feel about gambling?
What Do the Polls Say?
Perhaps our attitude toward gambling can best be summed up by this quote by Jonathan V. Last in The Wall Street Journal: "Over the past 50 years, gambling has gone from sin to vice to guilty pleasure and has come, finally, to be simply another point of interest on the entertainment map."
Maybe it's just a blip on your entertainment map, too. According to a recent Pew Research Study, only 28 percent of participants would characterize gambling as immoral. That number only climbed to 49 percent among white Protestant evangelicals.1.
True, there has been a "modest backlash," as the study's writers term it, in attitudes toward legalized gambling. Seventy percent of Americans say that legalized gambling encourages people to gamble more than they can afford, which is up from 62 percent in 1989. But the concern seems to be more about the effects of gambling, rather than the moral character of gambling itself.
When people lose too much money, so the American mindset seems to go, that's when gambling is a problem.
Perhaps that's why Congress was able to pass this law. The public seems to recognize that Internet gambling has a unique set of dangers. Because of the Internet's ease and proximity, a pastime can easily turn into an addiction. Stories abound of people turning to crime after online gambling losses or frittering away retirement accounts through the Internet. The Internet, too, doesn't have the age safeguards that keep most minors out of a brick-and-mortar casino.
Because of the danger then, many might agree, it was about time that Internet gambling laws were enforced.
But is that how we, as Christians, should view the situation? Should we just limit gambling when it steps over our idea of safe?
Through my own struggling with the Scripture, I've had to admit that, no, it isn't. Gambling isn't just wrong when bad things happen from it — like an occasional indigestion after a rich meal. Gambling is wrong in its essence.
Just about every part of gambling, from its motivations (greed and covetousness) to its actions (poor stewardship) to its habits (deceit and laziness), goes strongly against what God calls us to as Christians.
So, why then, do Christians tolerate, and even participate in gambling? If it was sin 50 years ago, what has changed?
We're Well-Off ...
I don't know if this is the complete answer, but I was struck by two particular statistics from the Pew Research Study. The first was the classification of gambling attitudes by income level.
Since gambling feeds so often on the poor — promising a quick, easy way to more money — I think I've always assumed that the poor would have a more morally relaxed view toward it. The exact opposite turned out to be true.
Around half of those who make $30,000 or less in annual income disagreed with the statement that "gambling is immoral." That number rose to 64 percent among those making $30-$50,000; then rose again to 74 percent among those making $50-$100,000; until it finally topped out with a full 78 percent of those earning $100,000 or more disagreeing that gambling was immoral.
Bottom line: In this study, the poor saw gambling as immoral at a much greater rate than the wealthy did.
Looking back on my own life, I guess I shouldn't find this too surprising. When I was scraping by on Raman noodles, without a car, and with hand-me-down furniture, I knew where every single penny went. The less I had, the more valuable it was to me. But now that I'm past my Raman days, there's the temptation to let my pennies slide a lot more easily.
Maybe that's why the well-off are more accepting of gambling. Who cares about your yearly trip to Vegas as long as you've got the money?
As a church, too, have we grown so well-off that, though we struggle to tithe, we feel that our excess dollars are our own to "blow" however we wish?
When the amount of money we have grows, does our call to be good stewards diminish?
... and we're bored
The other statistic that caught my attention was this: 71 percent of gamblers say they do it for enjoyment, only 21 percent say they do it to earn money.
Now, I'm not above thinking that these responders might be stretching the truth a little. Perhaps more do it for money than are willing to admit it. But, still, this is an overwhelming amount that are gambling just for recreation.
If that's so, particularly if it's so among Christians, then maybe we need to ask ourselves some tough questions about our recreation. Spending $100 to gamble or to spend a day scuba diving might be financially equivalent, but are they morally equivalent?
The obvious answer is no. Scuba diving doesn't jeopardize our personal character and it doesn't support an industry that feeds on the losses of others. Gambling does. It has ruined thousands and thousands and thousands of lives. Are we really so starved for entertainment that we'll forget that so long as we're having a good time?
It made me think about a quote I read from the Beth Moore Bible study I'm doing on Daniel. While discussing our self-important and self-indulgent culture, she quotes Euguene Peterson:
We try to get [joy] through entertainment.... Society is a bored, gluttonous king employing a court jester to divert it after an overindulgent meal. But that kind of joy never penetrates our lives.... When we run out of money, the joy trickles away.
I, for one, am thankful for this new Internet gambling law. I think it will do a lot of good and prevent a lot of harm. But, as Christians, I think we can do even more. We can examine our own attitudes about sin — especially on issues like gambling.
Maybe it's time for us to once again call a spade, a spade. Because gambling is not just a game, even if we're too well-off and bored to notice.
* * *
1. This study did not provide statistics for non-white Protestant evangelicals.