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Holy Rollers: Faith Groups and Gambling

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A Hollywood evangelist carrying a 12-foot wooden cross led some 200 Southern Baptists down the heart of the nation's gambling capital in 1989, handing out gospel tracts during the denomination's annual meeting in Las Vegas.

The decision to meet in Sin City evoked controversy, with some Southern Baptists deciding to stay home rather than bring their families to a city built on the vices they oppose. Church leaders presented it as an opportunity to emphasize evangelism in a growing region.

Thus, the march down the center of The Strip in 109-degree heat. "We're on the way to Caesar's Palace. We've got another place. That is God's palace. Let's take people there," encouraged the evangelist, Arthur Blessitt.

More than two decades later, the multibillion dollar gambling industry continues to grow as states expand lotteries and make way for casinos in the hopes of raising revenue that do not require tax hikes.

Still, efforts to oppose the personal and social ills of gambling by a broad range of religious groups, from Southern Baptists to United Methodists, have not been in vain, according to a developing body of research.

People who attend church regularly and have a high percentage of close friends in the congregation are among the least likely Americans to have gambling problems, according to a new study on religion and gambling among U.S. adults.

Add the pastor as a close friend, and the odds are even greater people will not lose their shirts -- or homes -- at the roulette wheel or betting on the Super Bowl, sociologists Christopher Ellison of the University of Texas at San Antonio and Michael McFarland of the University of Texas at Austin indicate in the March 2011 issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

For those outside the reach of congregations, however, the likelihood of problem gambling rises. And that includes conservative Protestants who may not feel comfortable seeking help.

A Little Help From Their Friends

Americans like to gamble.

A May 2010 Gallup Poll found just a third of Americans considered gambling to be morally wrong. Playing the lottery is the most common form of gambling, but other forms of betting are on the rise as opportunities multiply online and a short drive away. In 1989, the year the Southern Baptists met in Las Vegas, 20 percent of respondents to a Gallup Poll said they had visited a casino in the past year. By 2003, the percentage rose to 30 percent.

Ellison and McFarland found that more than half of the respondents from conservative and sectarian communities that discourage betting gamble at least occasionally, and more than 10 percent gamble at least weekly. Their study used data from the 2006 Panel Study on American Religion and Ethnicity.

Still, there are significant differences based on beliefs and practices.

Ellison and McFarland found regular churchgoers, particularly those who believe in the literal truth of Scriptures, are among the least likely to gamble.

Perhaps their most important finding, the researchers said, is the apparent deterrent effect of having close friends in the congregation. Those who count the pastor in their close personal network "may be especially reluctant to engage in behavior that could potentially be considered deviant," they said.

The same thing cannot be said for religious individuals who are not integrated into their congregations. Those who lack a congregational network and stray from their denomination's teachings may be at a greater risk for problem gambling, Ellison and McFarland said.

Conservative Protestants may be at particular risk, they said, because of the lack of models for moderate gambling and a reluctance to seek help for an activity that is condemned in their churches.

In a separate study on religion and gambling among young adults, sociologist David Eitle of Montana State University also found evidence suggesting the strictness of conservative churches may make it harder to reach problem gamblers.

He discovered that religious attendance was related to lower instances of problem gambling in counties with relatively high rates of church adherence. But Eitle also found that religious attendance was associated with an increased risk of gambling problems in counties where the number of conservative Protestants per capita is high. His study, published in the same issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

"It may be that once churchgoers of any denomination break this social norm of gambling, the perceived disapproval of the larger (Conservative Protestant) community may hinder efforts to do something to resolve their gambling issues," Eitle said.

Turning the Tables

Religious groups are swimming against powerful political tides in their opposition to gambling.

Politicians from both sides, whether it was evangelical power broker Ralph Reed's ties to Indian casinos or former Ohio governor and United Methodist minister Ted Strickland starting Sunday lottery drawings, have been willing to set aside moral concerns about problem gambling wreaking havoc on families or lotteries being a regressive tax on the poor.

But religious voices need not be silenced, researchers state, even as the gambling industry racks up political victories.

"Religious organizations can send a message pointing out this is not a behavior that comes without risks," said sociologist John Hoffmann of Brigham Young University.

When it comes to problem gambling, religion can make a difference in the lives of individuals and communities, the latest research indicates.

"There needs to be, at a minimum, some kind of ongoing dialogue and conversation about this in religious communities," Ellison said.

Marching down the center of The Strip in the city of Lost Wages is only one step in the effort by religious communities to turn the tables on problem gambling.

Welcoming people into their churches and synagogues and mosques, particularly those who need help with problem gambling, may be the most lasting way religious groups can turn the odds in their favor.

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.