More Thoughts on Lottery and Morality

Hugo’s question continues to nag me, so as a way of avoiding my sermon, I’m going to write here instead.

One of the reason’s I responded as I did to the lottery question in my earlier post relates to a strategic decision that the leaders of the anti-lottery campaign made in organizing our work. This group was composed of religious leaders, businessmen, and political consultants. In the early days of organizing we saw polling data which suggested that Tennesseans would not be responsive to “religious” arguments against the lottery, that is, that preaching against the lottery as “sin” would not lead church folks to change their minds regarding the lottery. We also recognized that the press would quickly dismiss us if we stayed attached to moral arguments. Thus we made a conscious decision to craft our message around issues of public policy (the “justice” arguments that I made earlier), and economic policy. We believed that the arguments against the lottery were strong enough to persuade folks to move against it.

This strategy wasn’t a bad one, as the pro-lottery forces immediately and repeatedly attacked lottery opponents as right-wing religious zealots that would take away personal freedom. Rather than lifting up the policy reasons for the lottery (beyond the college scholarships), their approach was to attack the opponents as reactionary — a strategy that we anticipated. Our response to these attacks was to always return to the talking points on the social and economic effects of lotteries.

When we began our work, polling suggested that some 80 percent of Tennesseans were in favor of the lottery. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, we pulled close. In the final vote, we lost by about 5 percentage points (which was sold as a huge mandate for the lottery). Given where we started, we did make some headway in the fight.

Yet, as I’ve reflected on it in the aftermath of the referendum, I wonder if those of us in the church didn’t make a huge blunder. After all, one of the things the church has going for it is our moral voice. Folks expect the church to speak on issues of morality. In limiting our rhetoric to policy issues, we gave up our moral voice. Perhaps we should have spoke more forcefully on the immorality of injustice. Perhaps we should have been reminding folks that all laws have moral implications, that deciding in favor of a lottery had implications far beyond economics, implications that relate to participation in corporate sin.

Certainly the press kept looking for us to speak on morality. In spite of our attempts to move out of the stereotyped role the press had for us, we were unable to do so. There are many reasons for this, primarily our inability to reach out to the progressive community in an effective fashion. Yet, maybe we should have accepted the role assigned to us and used it to its fullest.

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