United Methodist Church must confront gambling ills

5/7/2008

By W. Lamar Weems
Guest Columnist

"Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, where wealth accumulates and men decay." – "The Deserted Village," Oliver Goldsmith   

Casinos in Mississippi earned $2.89 billion in 2007. To put the numbers in perspective, state sales and use taxes yielded $3 billion, and the requested appropriation for all state institutions of higher learning for 2009 was under $1 billion.

The financial success of the industry has been generally applauded by public officials and the press, particularly for job creation and tax revenue. The statement in our United Methodist Social Principles that gambling is a "menace to society" seems to put The United Methodist Church out of step with prevailing public sentiment, however.

If I change my opening sentence to read a bit differently, casino earnings take on a less constructive connotation: Gamblers in Mississippi lost $2.89 billion in the casinos in 2007. The social ills that accompany the industry of casino gambling such as gambling addiction, personal bankruptcy, organized crime, political influence, prostitution, etc., have been documented by valid studies in other venues. Whether such fallout has occurred in Mississippi is unknown, maybe because nobody is looking. The Gaming Commission ought to have a duty to gather such data and to take appropriate steps to protect the public interest, but there is little evidence that the group has undertaken any initiative beyond serving as an advocate of gaming interests.

The net benefit of gambling to the citizenry is likewise poorly documented. Ostensibly, the tax bonanza coming from casinos helps fund education, but at least this year, there seemed to be as much anguish in the Legislature about the shortage of money as ever.

Nobody knows whether the money consumers spend on gambling might otherwise go for more substantive purchases and whether the diversion of expenditures does damage to other, more traditional, businesses which also pay taxes and provide jobs. A lot of people seem to enjoy the entertainment casinos offers, but at least some skepticism is called for when it comes to the question of whether, in the long run, casinos will turn out to improve the quality of life in Mississippi – and be worth the social and economic cost.

What is the church to do? For one thing, of course, the church is obliged to march to the order of its principles. So long as the Social Principles say that gambling is a bad thing, the church must oppose it or else consider changing the principles in order to avoid hypocrisy.

First, I think, the Mississippi Conference of The United Methodist Church must offer education for its clergy and lay membership. Next, the church should explore, along with other eleemosynary groups, ways to ameliorate the effects of the gaming industry on society as a whole and on individuals who fall victim.

Finally, there should be effort to influence public policy, which will not be easy in the current environment. In politics, money talks, but there is also strength in numbers. Developing a consensus and a plan of action among a coalition of like-minded groups to bring large numbers of voters into the effort will be essential in order to exercise political influence. It will not be enough to simply remind our public servants what the right thing is to do.

In retrospect, the old adage, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" certainly applies to this issue. A majority of Mississippians would have opposed legalization of casino gambling in the first place if given fair notice of the enabling legislation, but it is probably now too late to turn back. Yet there is much that can be done to limit the moral, economic and political damage which this industry will surely inflict if left to its own devices.

The recommendations from the Bishop's Ad Hoc Task Force on Gambling, which were sent to members of the Mississippi Legislature in April 2000, appear in the 2000 Journal. Recommendations to the Mississippi Conference and a plan of action remain to be adopted.

Weems attends Galloway Memorial United Methodist Church and chaired the 2000 task force on gambling.