Is gambling a sin?

Posted: May 07, 2003 12:00 AM
So is Bill Bennett a hypocrite? Reports from Newsweek that the former education secretary is a big-stakes gambler prompted an immediate reaction -- glee from the international media and concern from many in the Religious Right.

Dr. James C. Dobson, for example, of Focus on the Family, said in a statement he was "disappointed to learn our long-time friend, Dr. Bill Bennett, is dealing with what appears to be a gambling addiction," and reiterated his opposition to gambling as a "cancer on the soul of the nation."

From the standpoints of the average secularist, faithful Catholics and evangelicals all look alike. Certainly in the context of postmodern culture, a.k.a. the pagan revival, there are relatively few important differences in moral thought between traditional Catholics and evangelicals. (Catholics tend to consider divorce even worse than adultery, while evangelicals reverse the ranking. And of course there is the contraception issue.) In the great disputed area of contemporary morals (most of which, frankly, come down to sex), a long, firmly established, common Christian tradition (borrowing heavily from Jewish thought from which it sprang) insistently sees the purpose and meaning of sexual desire in the creation of faithful, fruitful, lifelong sacred unions between men and women, and insists equally firmly on the value of every human life created out of our sexual desires.

But the pseudo-scandal around Bennett reveals one difference: As heirs of the Protestant tradition, many evangelicals view gambling per se as a sin. Catholics simply do not. Which is why I learned to play poker with my Catholic father around the family dinner table. (Great training for college, btw.) Which is why this summer, when I drop by my local parish fair, I expect to play a few hands of blackjack for the glory of God, or at any rate, the pecuniary good of his church.

Which is why Mario Cuomo, of all people, rushed to Bill Bennett's defense: "Gambling is not a sin; it's not illegal. He didn't condemn it and then contradict himself. He didn't hurt anyone. He didn't lie about it; he didn't try to hide it." Gambling, Cuomo told the media in good Catholic fashion, is "not among the seven great sins or even among the 70 small ones." Gambling, like drinking, becomes a scandal when it interferes with the ordinary duties of life.

As a rich man, Bennett played high stakes, stakes he could afford. What did he do wrong? A saint, perhaps, would have preferred to spend that money more productively. I could say as much about the $4.60 I spent this morning on breakfast at the local diner; Cheerios at home would have saved enough to feed an Ethiopian family for a week. OK, so cross Bill and me off the list of candidates for sainthood. But the hope and promise of Catholicism is that you do not have to be a saint to be saved, or to be a good family man.

The evangelical objections to gambling stem from the Protestant work ethic, a deep regard for proper stewardship over money, that has been and continues to be an immensely powerful and positive force in American cultural life. The older I get, the sadder places casinos seem to be, full of restless longings for thrills that never really materialize.

But Bennett's peculiar fortune or misfortune is to be the man more responsible than any other Catholic for reaching out, defending and making common cause with evangelicals and others who share our common moral tradition. In defense of that important alliance and to rebut the charge he is an addict, Bill Bennett announced his gambling days are over.

Sounds like a stand-up guy to me.