Albert Mohler and Russell Moore have recently come out quite strongly (perhaps as you might expect) on the question of gambling, particularly with respect to expansion of gambling as a source of revenue for economically-depressed states.
Moore argues that although gambling is a complex phenomenon, it isn’t one that can be simply viewed as a personal and not a social and political problem: “Gambling is a social justice issue that defines how it is that we love our neighbors and uphold the common good.” Mohler focuses especially on the “casino culture,” and the entanglements of state interest (perhaps a form of corporatism) in casino profits : “The worst aspect of the casino culture is not just that the state has decided to prey on its own citizens, but that it has decided to do so with gusto.”
I don’t really disagree with much, if anything really, in the analysis in either piece.
But I would first say that the best example of the state deciding to prey upon its own citizens would be in the state promotion and monopoly of lotteries, which aim to turn gambling into a kind of civic virtue (which I have argued previously here, here, and here). Lotteries are the most obvious example of “state-empowered” gambling there is.
And secondly I would say that it is not so obviously clear to me that gambling in all its forms and in all instances is a clear moral evil. Obviously institutionalized gambling in many cases has created a structural evil that has many negative consequences that both Mohler and Moore outline.
As with so many things, the question comes down to where to draw the legal line regarding things that are presumably immoral, or at least questionable, knowing as we do that we live this side of the eschaton. As Moore puts it, “Of course conservative Christians don’t support gambling because they see gambling as immoral, so they want it illegal.” He proceeds to argue that the best opposition to gambling is achieved through cultural, and not primarily political means.
There’s another advantage to this approach beyond its long-term efficacy and its responsible approach to engaging the various aspects of human social life. And this advantage is that if you are actually wrong about the moral status of the thing in question, you haven’t improperly used the coercive force of government to turn something that is, at least in some cases, morally permissible into something that is illegal.
Consider in this light the rather balanced assessment of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2413): “Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others. The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant.”
In this sense I certainly concur with Mohler that the governing consideration must be moral and not merely economic. As he puts it, “In the final analysis, the greatest danger posed by the casino is not anything that can be determined by economic analysis, because the greatest injury caused by gambling is not financial — it is moral.” We have to bring to bear the Christian categories of stewardship, justice, and the common good in order to make informed judgments about complicated matters like gambling in its various forms.