Saturday, November 30, 2013

Faith, Morality, Gambling, and the Poor

An article on the front page of the Post today highlighted a peculiarity here in the great state of Virginia.    We Vah-ginn-yuns are among the ever-shrinking cadre of states that do not permit casino gambling.  It's a motley little group, comprised of some peculiar bedfellows.  There's a cluster of Deeply Red states, mostly southern, in which the refusal to allow gambling stems mostly from religious conservatism.

There's a small cluster of Deeply Blue states, meaning Vermont, New Hampshire, and Hawaii, in which gambling is prohibited largely because it's not really an industry, but rather a great way to separate a sucker from his or her money.  It disproportionately impacts the poor, and is a fundamentally anti-progressive "industry." 

What struck me in the article were two things.  First, the story includes numerous quotes from the Democratic leader of the majority party in the Virginia State Senate, who views "gaming" as the sort of economic activity that would be good for the state.  That State Senator Dick Saslaw would be in support of gambling is at least consistent, as he's also been the primary proponent of the recent spread of car-title-lending businesses in Virginia.  Loan sharking and gambling?   Guess he never met a predatory business model he didn't like, although how this attitude flies with the Democratic primary voters in his putatively progressive congressional district is beyond me.

Second, I was struck by a flawed assumption in the Post's coverage.  The assumption was this:  There are people who oppose casino gambling for religious reasons, and then there are people who oppose casino gambling because of the impact it has on the poor.  These categories were presented as if they were different…but I don't think that they are.  Not at all.

Here, the flaw in the assumption seems rooted in the idea that faith and religious morality are solely individual things.  It's just about me and My Personal Relationship with My Lord and Savior ™, or so the idea goes.  From that perspective, you only don't gamble because it's morally weak and imprudent.  And, yeah, it is unwise, but that's not the whole of it.

Because Christian faith is not just personal wisdom.  It's fundamentally relational.  Meaning, it has to do not just with ourselves and our personal prosperity and spirituality, but is radically oriented towards the other. It is rooted in compassion, a deep awareness of the impacts of our actions on other beings.  From that compassion, you look at actions that are causing harm to others, and are compelled to speak and act against them.

For Christians of all ilks and political persuasions, care for those who are struggling is a fundamental moral and spiritual imperative. Actions and behaviors that generate profit at the expense of another are radically in opposition to the core value of Christian faith, and that becomes particularly and doubly true when it comes to the poor.  

As Pope Francis has recently and wonderfully declared, you can't parse out faith from the care for the poor, not if our faith is to have any integrity.