Jimmy Carter, the 86-year-old leader of The Blind Boys of Alabama, made one point clear from the start of a recent concert set in the middle of a Connecticut casino: If you are not here for music praising God, best leave now.
For the next 90 minutes, the renowned Gospel group sang, danced and testified that “My God is real, for I can feel him in my soul” as if it were a Sunday morning in a black church in Birmingham.
But jumping into the lion’s den at Mohegan Sun casino, or in this case a venue called the Wolf Den, is just one way for religious folks to make a difference in response to an ever-expanding gambling industry.
Two new studies show religion can help deter gambling even as local governments searching for new forms of tax revenue give legitimacy to an industry that appears to exert its greatest harm on society’s most vulnerable.
In one national study, people who attended religious services most often had the fewest problem gambling symptoms such as borrowing money to gamble or betting more than you can afford to lose.
A separate study measuring the different effects of faith on casino and lottery gambling and betting online found that being part of religious life generally reduces the likelihood of gambling.
“For those concerned that mass gambling has been a Faustian bargain,” the researchers stated, “our overall conclusion that gambling varies depending on different indicators of ‘faith’ suggests new pathways for ameliorating ordinary and perhaps even heavy gambling.”
An uphill battle
Nearly all religious traditions oppose the personal and social ills associated with gambling.
For example, the Quran teaches, “Satan’s plan is (but) to excite enmity and hatred between you, with intoxicants and gambling, and hinder you from the remembrance of God, and from prayer: will ye not then abstain?”
In 2012, the United Methodist Church declared that, “Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic and spiritual life.”
What adds urgency to their concern are research findings that indicate that more people suffer the easier it is to gamble.
And the negative effects fall disproportionately on the poor and disadvantaged, who are more likely to see gambling as a way out of poverty rather than investments with significant overall negative rates of return.
One of the latest studies, analyzing data from a national survey of nearly 3,000 adults from 2011 to 2013, revealed that people who lived in disadvantaged neighborhoods had the most problem gambling symptoms.
The study also found that people who said it was most convenient for them to gamble had the highest average problem gambling symptoms, compared to those for whom gambling was less accessible.
But high rates of attending religious services predicted fewer gambling ills. Those who attended religious services weekly or even more often reported the fewest indicators of problem gambling.
“The pro-social individuals who attend religious services regularly are less likely to fit into the anti-social/impulsivist model of problem gambling,” researchers from the State University of New York at Buffalo and Buffalo State College suggested.
Beating the house
A separate survey analyzing data from nearly 2000 adults ages 23 and older found that no one religious approach worked best in response to all forms of gambling.
Being a follower of a religious tradition and greater religious service attendance reduced the likelihood of casino gambling and lottery play, the survey found. Evangelical Protestantism had the strongest deterrent effect.
But religious salience, or considering faith an important part of your life, was the only dimension that constrained online gambling.
Overall, the researchers noted, there are multiple ways religion may discourage gambling.
“Simply put, spending time at congregations means less time to go to a casino. Being integrated into the life of religious institutions means one is less likely to risk being seen as a gambler buying lotto tickets. And even the most secluded form of gambling on the Internet appears to be curtailed when we consider how much personal guidance people derive from religion,” researchers from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Arizona stated.
For their part, the Blind Boys of Alabama never directly mentioned gambling in their casino concert. They stayed focused on their mission of praising God.
Some gamblers left shortly after the music started and those outside the open-air venue kept their eyes fixed forward, mechanically pumping coin after coin into a sea of brightly colored slot machines.
For the people who remained, however, one song, “Way Down in the Hole” by singer-songwriter Tom Waits, seemed to carry special resonance.
Concertgoers themselves fell into a call-and-response tradition of shouted affirmation, dancing and applause dating back centuries as the vibrant, intricate Gospel harmonies conveyed an unapologetic Christian message:
All the angels sing about Jesus' mighty sword, And they'll shield you with their wings, And keep you close to the lord, Don't pay heed to temptation, For his hands are so cold, You gotta help me keep the devil, Way down in the hole.
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