Gambling has always been popular. As various forms of gambling have gained legal acceptance, the scale of that popularity is now more measurable. For instance, Fortune reports that the amount legally wagered on sports doubled from 2020 to 2021: “Americans wagered more than $52.7 billion throughout the year.” During sporting events, ads for gambling websites are as now as pervasive as ads for beer and pickup trucks. Sports leagues, who used to abhor any connection to gambling, now have “official” betting partners.
The surge in legalized gambling may or may not represent an uptick in gambling overall, but it does highlight its popularity. I suspect that as gambling is legalized in more states, the stigma of gambling diminishes, and participation in gambling is likely increasing.
Christians have historically frowned upon gambling. The argument against gambling typically has two points of emphasis: that Christians aren’t to be greedy and that gambling involves tremendous risk and is therefore a dereliction of proper stewardship.
I don’t believe that these arguments are entirely without merit. That said, they invite pushback and counterexamples. The most common is a comparison to the stock market: why is it wrong to risk money hoping for a payout betting on sports, for instance, but not to risk money hoping for a payout investing in a stock? Christians investing in stocks do hope for a return on their investment. And such investments do risk loss; the recent performance of the market is certainly evidence of this.
I think we can build a case that gambling is in a different class of activity than investment. And the moral difference between the two has little to do with Christian ethics about money (as important as that is); it has to do with the Christian ethic of love.
When people engage in a normal transaction in a money economy, one person gives another money in exchange for some good or service. An outside observer may dispute whether the exchange was fair or whether it was a worthwhile use of money, but from the point of view of those engaged in the transaction, something of value was given in exchange for the money. This is true not only for simple market transactions, but also for investments. My purchase of a company’s stock gives them immediate capital that they intend to use to generate profit. The intention is to create value for everyone: for themselves, their customers, and their investors (although this obviously does not always happen).
But gambling is different. The money that exchanges hands in gambling is not compensated in any way by a good or service. This is most clearly evident in a simple bet between two people. If you and I each bet a quarter on the outcome of a coin toss, if I win, I get your quarter and I have provided nothing to you.
This remains true even if we add a third party to our transaction to hold our money while we settle the bet. If we each hand a quarter to a companion while we flip the decisive coin, and he hands the two quarters to the winner, the money he hands out is not his. The winner’s profit is still coming directly from the pocket of the loser, even if it passes through an intermediary.
In the common experience of gambling, that third party is often a casino or a state government or a website. In any case, the money I hope to make as a gambler comes from the losses of my neighbors. The third party isn’t producing value. In the case of a casino, a lottery, or a sportsbook, the third party takes his cut of the bets and then gives the winners money from the losers.
And this is the key: I want to win the bet. I want to take money out of your pocket without any justification. And this, it seems to me, is difficult to square with the Second Greatest Commandment, to love my neighbor as myself.
It seems to me that it is this that separates gambling from legitimate economic activity. It isn’t merely the motivation to make a profit, which is not intrinsically immoral. Nor is it the amount of risk. Indeed, if I could eliminate all risk (say, with a rigged deck of cards), the offense of gambling becomes worse rather than greater, because I have guaranteed that I will take money from anyone I play. Risk cannot be the issue.
Rather, the problem with gambling from the perspective of Christian ethics is that the entire mechanic is built on my hope of my gaining at the expense of my neighbor while offering him nothing. I cannot hope to win without hoping that he will lose—and that his money will become mine. And that, I contend, suggests and gambling and loving my neighbor are mutually exclusive activities.
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