Anybody know what Alabama Gov. Riley’s present obsession with gambling is all about? Gambling in one form or another has been present throughout Riley’s two terms as governor. Why the interest now is a mystery.

His actions feel politically motivated, but I can’t see what the payoff can be. He is not eligible for another term. If he aspires to another national office, the Senate or a return to the House, I’m not sure how opposition to gambling helps him.

His stated reason for going after gambling interests is his desire to follow the law. But again, why now?

I’ve wondered if this is a faith issue for the governor.

Riley is a devout Christian, and Christians in Alabama are famous for their opposition to gambling in any form – for moral reasons. As it turns out, I’m opposed to legalized gambling as well, and for a moral reason, though not the same as many of my Baptist sisters and brothers. I oppose legalized gambling because it preys on the poor.

Lotteries and other forms of state-supported gaming are nothing more than a hidden tax on the poor. The reason gambling exists, for the most part, is so legislators can avoid the painful business of raising taxes for needed services. Gambling becomes a sort of voluntary tax, but it’s the poor who pay the most.

But that is not the concern of many Christians who oppose gambling. For them it is the desire to control what they see as inappropriate behavior. For many of them, gambling is an evil and people should not do it, so there should be a law.

The problem with decrying gambling as an evil is that not everyone shares that viewpoint. It’s not like murder or stealing. No one is going to question whether murder or theft is right or wrong. These behaviors are wrong, we all know they are wrong, and having a law to prevent murder and theft makes sense.

But gambling is in another category. It’s a perceived wrong, with the perception formed out of faith sensibilities. But is gambling really wrong in some absolute sense? People who can’t manage themselves and gamble compulsively certainly do financial harm to themselves and their families. But there are many people who gamble for fun and have no problem stopping when it’s time to stop.

If the governor is attacking gambling for religious reasons, then what he is doing in effect is seeking to impose a religious principle as a matter of law.

It’s not unlike the practice of forcing businesses to close on Sunday – the old “blue laws.” Requiring businesses to shut down on Sunday, in deference to the Christian Sabbath, was nothing short of an establishment of religion. That’s one reason the “blue laws” don’t exist anymore.

Similar debates are taking place around the state concerning Sunday liquor sales. Why is it wrong to buy or sell something on Sunday that is perfectly legal any other day. The simple answer is communities that allow no Sunday liquor sales have imposed the Christian Sabbath on everyone else.

We are a nation of laws, and rightly so. But when those laws support religious rather than civil principles, the law goes too far. It is only a few short steps from eliminating gambling for religious reasons to requiring that people pray. After all, if we can legislate the end of bad behavior, so defined, why not legislate good behavior – so defined?

James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.

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