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by Mary Roe
from Signs of the Times, No. 16 - Jan 2005
To reach a considered view of the Government's proposed Gambling Bill, the main thrust of which is to increase by a greater or lesser number the Las Vegas-style casinos throughout the country, we must go beyond our initial gut-reaction either to the morality of gambling per se or to the social effects which gambling has been seen to have on any particular group of people. On the other hand, our thinking is bound to be influenced by our personal faith alignments in the one case and by past experience and observation in the other.
As voting members of a democracy, we need to discern what is the Government's thinking and discover its motivation. Is this Bill an attempt to make life more fun for all of us in Merrie (New Labour) England? Is it perceived as a legitimate way to enhance the prosperity of certain run-down, deprived areas at little or no cost to the tax-payer? Or are we entitled to voice a cynical suspicion that the main purpose is to increase the prosperity of the Treasury and the large, mostly US, companies which are poised to come over and run these new "leisure centres" at the expense of the majority of our citizens?
We need to be honest and well-informed in our predictions of what the effect of these large casinos will be in the communities where they will be set up. I really can't see how we can avoid a massive increase in gambling among those who can least afford to lose even comparatively small sums and the consequent increase in the misery of unmanageable debt incurring homes being re-possessed and children taken into care.
The Government Minister's answer to this suggested scenario (I heard her, on Radio 4) was to say that these casinos would be a move towards greater equality; for too long, in her view, only the rich have been free to gamble away the family fortune while the poor have been denied access to these elite gaming houses! (This statement clearly calls for a separate article on "What do we mean by Equality? - and do we really want it?" - but I'll leave that to someone else for the moment...) I think that the Government will be hard pressed to convince us that they are legislating entirely for the good of the under-privileged in our country, or even for the Common Good.
And where does the Government stand in relation to those who object to gambling on moral grounds, including those who see a vast difference between buying a raffle ticket at the church or hospital fete and irresponsibly staking a week's wages on a matter of chance, as well as those who abhor anything which exalts Lady Luck over our Creator and Provider? In view of the claim of many of our MPs and Tony Blair himself that they are fully committed Christians, the answer to this objection is surprising, to say the least - "O.K., if it will make you happy, we'll build only about a half to two-thirds of the number first planned - so that's all right, then?" Where are we assured, in scripture or traditional ethics, that a sin becomes less sinful - even almost virtuous - in inverse ratio to the number of times it is committed or the number of people affected by it? Is it, therefore, merely a little bit naughty to rob, murder or rape just one person, but a grave sin if we make a habit of it? (Another article on the horizon: "Do the ethics of personal behaviour and those of Politics overlap, and if so, where?")
Like most people, of any faith or none, I am in favour of a secular democratic State especially in a pluralist society such as ours and in view of what we see happening in so-called theocracies. There are no circumstances in which I would seek to criminalise or ban gambling at any level (although certain restrictions could no doubt improve the situation) but I do feel that a self-confessed Christian, such as our Prime Minister is required to do all he can to live up to the confidence expressed in S. Paul's letter to the Romans, ch. 13, that our secular rulers exercise their power under God. For a believer in any of the monotheistic faiths, governments as well as religious leaders should model themselves on the shepherd: good governments do not put themselves and their own interests before those of their humbler flock, but legislate, rather, in favour of the weak and vulnerable. Perhaps we should ask them the question I used to put to my students: "In scripture, what is the first question that a human being asks God?" They were always surprised to realise that it was nothing to do with "How did the world come into being?" or, "Why are we here?" but Cain asking, "Am I my brother's keeper?"
As to the rights and wrongs of the Gambling Bill, we might also remind our legislators that, "By their fruits you shall know them."
Mary Roe is a retired RE teacher, lay reader, widow of a bishop, and member of the Modern Church Council.