SECTION: NATIONAL POLITICAL NEWS
LENGTH: 721 words
DATELINE: NASHVILLE, Tenn.
It’s a moral issue. It’s not a moral issue.
That’s the mixed message from Tennessee lottery opponents fighting to keep the Bible Belt state from joining 47 other states with some form of legalized gambling.
While their hopes of defeating Tuesday’s referendum depend heavily on a grass roots Christian army, opposition leaders purposely avoid casting the vote as a sin issue, instead treating it as a policy and economic matter.
“To win, we could not make it a preacher issue,” said the Rev. Paul Durham, a Southern Baptist pastor and treasurer for the Gambling Free Tennessee Alliance. “We had to make it a truth issue.”
The campaign’s lack of Bible thumping reflects political and theological realities in the battle over lifting a constitutional ban on a lottery. Polls have consistently shown most Tennesseans – those in the pews and otherwise – see no inherent evil in the concept of a lottery.
“Since 47 states have gambling, I would have to think God’s not really against it,” said state Sen. Steve Cohen, a Democrat and the state’s chief lottery proponent.
To be sure, some preach unabashedly that Scriptures teach against gambling.
“The principle is honest wage for honest labor and gambling in no way fits with that,” Dan Cottrell, minister of the Southern Hills Church of Christ in Franklin, told his congregation recently. “Gambling is based upon greed and that makes it a form of covetousness.”
James Porch, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, said he also considers gambling a sin. But in 3.2 million anti-lottery leaflets distributed to Southern Baptist churches statewide, the convention took a different tack, arguing that lotteries hurt children, the poor and the economy and don’t do much to help education.
Supporters are pushing the lottery as way to generate a much-needed $900 million a year during sour economic times.
Half of revenues would go to prizes and one-sixth to administrative costs and ticket vendors, with the remainder – roughly $300 million – funding college scholarships, preschool programs and school construction.
In recent advertising, the Gambling Free Tennessee Alliance used the slogan “Not This Lottery!” and attacked the ballot measure on grounds that the lottery wouldn’t buy K-12 textbooks, improve teacher salaries or help the state’s general budget.
“It’s just so hypocritical and inconsistent,” said Cohen, who has pushed for a lottery for 18 years. “If their argument is that lotteries are bad, that they prey on the poor … then they should be for no lottery.”
Cohen, who leads the pro-lottery Tennessee Student Scholarship Lottery Coalition, accuses evangelical Christian leaders of spreading “misrepresentations and falsehoods” in a desperate attempt to defeat the lottery.
“What they’re doing is what the polls tell them to do, not what they truly believe,” Cohen said. “It all comes back to morals and religion and an anti-government bias.”
But Rubel Shelly, minister of the Woodmont Hills Church of Christ in Nashville, said opponents have legitimate concerns.
“It’s unfortunate that Senator Cohen has pitched it as sort of a ‘Church Lady’ crowd against the rest of the people,” said Shelly, an anti-lottery alliance board member. “It’s not that at all.”
Tennessee is joined by Hawaii and Utah as the only states that have no legalized gambling. Other Southern states have taken efforts to create lotteries in recent years.
In Alabama, evangelical Christians used a grass-roots campaign featuring yard signs, T-shirts, rallies, prayer vigils and sermons to defeat a proposed state lottery in 1999. (Betting is allowed at Alabama dog tracks and there is high-stakes bingo on Indian land.)
A year later, the religious right tried a similar strategy to defeat a lottery in South Carolina – and lost.
Kevin Geddings, a political consultant who produced a pro-lottery TV ad in Tennessee, managed the successful South Carolina campaign.
“I think the bottom line was clearly a majority of people in South Carolina who go to Sunday school and go to church every week voted for the lottery,” Geddings said. “I guess the (anti-lottery) folks in Tennessee figured that out.”