Skip to main content

Secondary navigation:

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life


gambling and the american moral landscape

In roughly half a century, both American governmental policy and public opinion have shifted from condemning gambling to broadly endorsing and even encouraging it. Yet gambling’s dramatic move from social pariah to entertainment industry has not received the scholarly attention it deserves, in part because scholastic and academic discussions of gambling have largely been pursued in disciplinary isolation.

This conference begins to correct that oversight by examining gambling in a broad interdisciplinary framework, with an emphasis upon the moral questions that arise from gambling’s relation to the economy, the family, race, religion, and the American taste for risk and reward.


Gambling—lotteries, casinos, scratch tickets, informal betting, etc. —is a salient feature of life in the United States. Yet its current status as socially acceptable enterprise has developed only recently and without much concerted scholarly attention. “Gambling and the American Moral Landscape” brings together a diverse group of scholars who will reflect together on this dramatic shift to reveal new ways of thinking about gambling in the 21st century.

The recent history of attitudes toward gambling in America reveals the alacrity with which gambling has moved from a morally dubious activity to a tolerated, even embraced, pastime. In the early 1950s, the Special Committee on Organized Crime and Interstate Commerce, also known as the “Kefauver Committee,” condemned casinos as morally indefensible business enterprises. By 1976, however, the U.S. Commission to Review the National Policy on Gambling had judged legal gambling an essentially harmless form of recreation. In the mid-1990s, in response to the proliferation of legalized gambling, the Clinton administration oversaw yet another study on gambling in America; the National Gaming Impact Study Commission completed its report in 1999 and gave commercial gambling a mixed endorsement, cautioning the Federal Government about certain aspects of gambling rather than condemning the industry as the Kefauver Committee had in the fifties. In other words, in roughly half a century, American public policy has changed from forbidding gambling, to vindicating it, and finally toward endorsing and encouraging it.

Attitudes at the individual level have changed as well. If the billions Americans lose every year while gambling is any indication, it would seem that the citizenry has openly accepted the formerly pariah activity of “playing the odds.” The financial windfalls involved in gambling are staggering. In 2003, the American Gaming Association estimated total revenue in the industry at $72.8 billion for the year. Specific industries such as Internet gambling, Native American gambling operations and casinos accounted for $6 billion, $19 billion, and $28.7 billion respectively, while state lotteries in Massachusetts, California, and Connecticut brought in $4.2 billion, $3.3 billion, and $933 million. 

As policy has changed, so has American culture. Once considered “Puritanical” and willing to save and invest for the long-term, Americans seem to be increasingly hedonistic, willing to wager in the short-term for immediate, and sometimes unearned, gains. Ironically, in an era of heightened vigilance against addictive behaviors—consider the growing restrictions on public smoking—gambling, although a proven addiction, has achieved the status of a public good.

These dramatic changes have not received the breadth of inquiry and analysis they deserve. Moreover, to the degree they have been analyzed, much of the attention has focused on economic questions, such as whether gambling can enhance a state’s revenue intake.

The October 2007 conference “Gambling and the American Moral Landscape,” sponsored by the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, will examine gambling in a broader framework with an emphasis upon moral questions. From a public policy standpoint, the central question behind the rise of gambling is whether state and federal governments should support it, let alone participate in and benefit from the industry. But from a moral point of view, the issue of gambling raises questions about race, poverty, religion, ethics, and rewards. A short list of questions illuminates the complexity of the moral questions involved:

• Is gambling still considered a sin? By whom? For what reasons?

• Are people who lose money in gambling situations responsible for the consequences of their own behavior, or is gambling evidence of an illness?

• Are those who can less afford the losses associated with gambling more likely to be among the losers?

• How did casinos come to be identified with Native Americans and what are the consequences of this linkage for American society?

• Where is the line between legitimate and illegitimate gambling to be drawn – or should one be?

• Have Americans always been gamblers?

• Are the gains obtained through gambling morally equal or morally inferior to gains made through product development and entrepreneurial activity?

• Do state lotteries represent an unfair, if voluntary, tax on the poor?

• Are the profits of commercial gambling equitably distributed?

• Is gambling more harmful to women or to men?

• Does gambling undermine family stability?

• Why has the Christian right identified abortion and stem cell research as wrong but not gambling, at least not to the same degree?

• What does the popularity of gambling say about American attitudes toward thrift? If American views of thrift are changing, what implications follow for the study of American values?

These questions are not uncommon within the scope of literature on gambling. Indeed, this literature is quite broad and covers many manifestations of gambling in America. Until now, however, these questions have been asked in relative isolation from one another. “Gambling and the American Moral Landscape” gathers experts from diverse fields to redress this gap in the public debate on gambling through interdisciplinary conversation.

The ultimate goal of the conference is to produce an edited collection of essays that will broaden the public discussion of gambling by bringing together various scholars and viewpoints that have not previously been in dialogue, especially those capable of setting gambling into a moral, cultural, and historical framework. The volume will be a landmark work designed to spark national debate and further scholarship concerning this major realignment of American attitudes toward gambling.