Skip to main content

Secondary navigation:

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Gambling and the American Moral Landscape


The Boisi Center’s biggest event of the fall semester was a major conference on “Gambling and the American Moral Landscape” held at Boston College, October 25-26, 2007.  The culmination of two years of planning, the conference fortuitously coincided with political discussion over Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s proposal for three casinos to be built in this state. The conference consequently drew significant media and public attention, as well as a well-informed and passionate audience representing various policy advocacy groups, casinos, state and local governments, and academic disciplines. Audio and video links to the presentations and discussion sessions can be found on the conference website, along with numerous resources for those interested in learning more about gambling. Boisi Center director Alan Wolfe and assistant director Erik Owens are hard at work editing a volume of these papers, which will be published in book form in 2009.

The New Politics and Policy of Gambling

The conference kicked off with a panel addressing policy and political issues associated with gambling. This wide-ranging panel included discussion of political rationales used to justify a state’s implementation of a lottery, the continued expansion of state lotteries, the lack of federal control of lotteries and the moral implications of tribal sovereignty and socioeconomic depression in many Indian communities.  Kenneth Himes, O.F.M. (Boston College) chaired the session, which included Charles Clotfelter (Duke University), Michael Nelson (Rhodes College) and a joint presentation by Kathryn R.L. Rand and Steven A. Light (University of North Dakota). The respondent, R. Shep Melnick (Boston College), discussed these papers in light of the contradictory interests of the public in lower taxes and more social services. Gambling revenues (and thus tax receipts from these revenues) are disproportionately provided by the poorest Americans, who also tend to vote less. So in an important sense, Melnick argued, government expansion of gambling allows states to increase government services to voters who do not themselves pay the price.

Individual Behavior, Social Impact

Thursday’s second panel focused on individual behavior and the social impact of gambling. The panelists, Rachel Croson (University of Texas, Dallas), John Hoffmann (Brigham Young University) and Marc Potenza (Yale University), offered presentations on the psychological, social and physiological aspects of gambling. Some highlights of the panel included evidence that what people actually do—as empirically observed—frequently conflicts with what they should do to improve their welfare; general agreement that while only 1.5% of people who have gambled become pathological gamblers, these people can have a disastrous impact on their families, friends and colleagues; and descriptions of cutting edge brain imaging research on behavioral addictions such as gambling. Joseph Quinn (Boston College) chaired the panel, and discussant John Dombrink (University of California, Irvine) adeptly wove the various arguments together and recounted his own experience with bingo in the Catholic church.

Theology, Gambling and Risk

Judith Wilt (Boston College) chaired Friday’s first panel, which focused on theological concerns about gambling. William Galston (Brookings Institution), Kathryn Tanner (University of Chicago) and William Stuntz (Harvard University) presented wide-ranging papers that explored the Jewish commitment to work, creativity, contemplation and the concerns of practicality; the curious gamble inherent in “Pascal’s wager” about the existence of God; and a shift in American law, as influenced by Protestant Christianity, away from mercy toward retribution as response to vice. Dwayne Carpenter (Boston College) responded to the papers in part with a considerable contribution of his own about the role of gambling in Jewish history. Together the panelists demonstrated that gambling has often been understood as compatible with religious belief and practice, contrary to today’s prevailing opinion.

Gambling in American Culture

The phenomenon of gambling in American culture was addressed in the final panel of the conference, chaired by David Quigley (Boston College). Economist Richard McGowan, S.J. (Boston College) outlined the curious inverse relationship between the fates of the American cigarette and gambling industries in the last fifty years. T.J. Jackson Lears (Rutgers University) described the long-standing tension in American culture between visions of “the self-made man,” who thrives on the “culture of control” and eschews the easy money of gambling, and “the confidence man,” who thrives on the “culture of chance” by relying upon luck and the gullibility of others to get ahead. “How different is the stock market day-trader from the lone gambler?” Lears asked, and is the former best understood as a self-made man or a confidence man?  The Boisi Center’s Alan Wolfe argued that gambling has never risen to the forefront of the culture wars alongside abortion and gay rights in large part because it has widespread support, and thus has never become a topic of national debate or controversy. Discussant Steven Light (University of North Dakota) concluded the panel by arguing that well-informed public discourse and public policy about gambling requires much more sophisticated analysis and awareness than is common today.

Conference organizers and participants agreed that the event was a great success, and we would like to thank the many people who made it happen. Stay tuned for updates in this newsletter about the edited volume of conference essays; we will announce the book’s publisher soon.