“Don’t Bet on It!”: A Latter-day Saint Look at Gambling


So what’s wrong with spending a dollar for a chance to win a million? Or slipping a few cents into a slot machine, or cutting the cards, or tossing the dice? It’s all right, isn’t it, to place a friendly bet on the football game … or the horse race?

After all, you deserve a lucky break.

A lot of people are looking for that lucky break. And they’re willing to wager that fortune’s favor is just one more gamble away.

Legalized gambling is widely touted as an appropriate form of entertainment and a painless way for governments and organizations—even churches—to increase revenues. A 1982 Gallup poll showed that 82 percent of the American people approve of some form of gambling. (See Gaming Business, Nov. 1982, pp. 5–7.)

This trend is obvious in many countries around the world. In the United States, for example, gambling of one kind or another is already legal in forty-six of the fifty states; only Hawaii, Indiana, Mississippi, and Utah prohibit it—and proposed legislation would shorten even that brief list.

Government-operated lotteries are allowed in twenty-two states and in Washington, D.C., and legislators in other states are currently proposing additional state-run lotteries. Some officials even endorse a national lottery.

Thirty-six states allow pari-mutuel gambling—betting on such competitions as horse and dog races.

Casino gambling is legal on both sides of the country—in Nevada and in Atlantic City, New Jersey. And in January of this year, Louisiana’s governor encouraged legislators to legalize casino gambling in New Orleans and on Mississippi River cruise ships.

Should Latter-day Saints be concerned about this trend? What’s wrong with gambling if it is controlled and regulated? Proponents point to many noble benefits, such as a lower tax burden, more money for education and other worthy causes, and a way to fight illegal gambling and organized crime. And it provides a chance, they say, for average people to get rich quick.

If you don’t make a fortune, some people reason, at least you’ll have a good time.

Don’t bet on it! According to Latter-day Saint leaders, the stakes in gambling are too high. And the list of losers includes everyone who plays.

The Case against Gambling

President Brigham Young exhorted the Nauvoo Saints in 1845 to “put down” gambling and various other “abominations.” (See History of the Church, 7:350.) Later, addressing the practice of Relief Society sisters raffling homemade quilts and giving the profits to the needy, he stated that worthy causes should not be sullied by unworthy practices: “Tell the sisters not to raffle,” he said, adding that raffling is a form of gambling. “Rather let the quilts rot on the shelves than adopt the old adage, ‘The end will sanctify the means.’ As Latter-day Saints we cannot afford to sacrifice moral principle to financial gain.” (As quoted in Juvenile Instructor, 1 Oct 1902, p. 593.)

President Joseph F. Smith and his counselors gave similar direction, expressly prohibiting any Church organization from promoting games of chance: No form of gambling “is to be allowed or excused because the money so obtained is to be used for a good purpose,” they said. (Improvement Era, Dec. 1908, p. 144.)

“The Church has been and now is unalterably opposed to gambling in any form whatever,” said President Heber J. Grant and his counselors during the twenties. “It is opposed to any game of chance, occupation, or so-called business, which takes money from the person who may be possessed of it without giving value received in return. It is opposed to all practices the tendency of which is to encourage the spirit of reckless speculation, and particularly to that which tends to degrade or weaken the high moral standard which members of the Church, and our community at large, have always maintained.” (Improvement Era, Sept. 1926, p. 1100.)

Fifty years later, President Spencer W. Kimball gave the same message. “From the beginning we have been advised against gambling of every sort,” he said. And he specifically condemned state lotteries, which divert billions of dollars from worthwhile, charitable purposes. (See Ensign, May 1975, p. 6.) More recently, President Gordon B. Hinckley of the First Presidency again denounced state and federal lotteries: “There can be no question about the moral ramifications of this practice,” he said. “A lottery is a form of gambling, regardless of the high-sounding purpose it may be advocated to meet. …

“The question of lotteries is a moral question. That government now promotes what it once enforced laws against becomes a sad reflection on the deterioration of public and political morality in the nation.” (Ensign, Nov. 1985, p. 52.)

Why Fight It?

Some may object to such strong statements. What could it hurt, really, to do a little harmless gambling now and then? You don’t see people quitting their jobs just because they bought a lottery ticket. Why do we need to become involved in opposing it?

In 1972, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, then president of Brigham Young University, examined five reasons. Included in his discussion were such activities as playing cards for money and betting on horses. He also mentioned casino gambling, lotteries, raffles, bingo for money, and dice. (See Ensign, Nov. 1972, p. 47.)

“First, gambling weakens the ethics of work, industry, thrift, and service—the foundation of national prosperity—by holding out the seductive lure of something for nothing. By the same token, gambling encourages idleness, with all of its resulting bad effects for society.” (Dallin H. Oaks, Ensign, Nov. 1972, p. 45.)

The idea of getting gain without earning it is contrary to scriptural admonitions, both ancient and modern. Reward is clearly tied to labor. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,” Adam was told. (Gen 3:19.) “The labourer is worthy of his hire,” said the Savior. (Luke 10:7.) Blessings are for those who work with their talents—not for the idle. (See Matt. 25:24–28.)

Nephi taught his people to be industrious. (See 2 Ne. 5:17.) King Benjamin worked for his own living rather than burdening others. (See Mosiah 2:14.) Mosiah taught that “priests and teachers should labor with their own hands for their support.” (Mosiah 27:5.)

In our own day, the Lord told the Prophet Joseph Smith that the Church cannot be built up by those who expect others to support them: “He that is idle shall not eat the bread nor wear the garments of the laborer.” (D&C 42:42.)

Gambling disregards this divine directive. Those who gamble are seeking to receive what they have not earned.

Even a small payoff is counter to the spirit of the work ethic. The size of the prize is irrelevant—even if the gambler breaks even. “The deterioration and damage comes to the person, whether he wins or loses, to get something for nothing, something without effort, something without paying the full price,” said President Spencer W. Kimball. (Ensign, May 1975, p. 6.)

In the process, the gambler’s view of reality—of the relationship between work and chance—can become distorted. Those who work for an honest living—and yet who gamble for that elusive stroke of luck—can misguide themselves into thinking that chance is the governing force in life. President Stephen L Richards said, “So obsessed do some people become with it that they cannot contemplate or think of any other way in which to increase their means and their income except by taking the chance that gambling affords.” (Where Is Wisdom? Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1955, p. 55.)

To some extent, this mistaken view of life is also encouraged by sweepstakes and giveaways promoted by some advertisers. Even though the consumer may not have to pay to enter the competition, he is enticed into playing a game of chance—and into believing that life and prosperity are determined by happenstance.

“A second evil of gambling is that it promotes greed and covetousness and inevitably involves and encourages the base practice of overreaching and taking from one’s neighbor.” (Oaks, p. 46.)

Greed is indeed a strong motivation for most gamblers. How many, when asked why they’ve bought lottery tickets, will respond that they’re doing it to pay for education and the care of the elderly?

Small winnings rarely satisfy. Lean payoffs usually increase the urge to try for higher and higher stakes. The odds are pretty good that the occasional gambler who plays the slot machines just for fun—to see how long a roll of coins will last—will keep going until both his initial investment and his “earnings” have disappeared. Even the $5.6 million winner in the 1982 New York lottery still buys lottery tickets—at $20 a shot—to get “another piece of the dream.” (Newsweek, 2 Sept. 1985, p. 18.)

One reason greed is so devastating is that it leads the gambler to try to get rich at someone else’s expense. As President Stephen L Richards said, gambling “proceeds upon the assumption that one has to lose for another to gain.” (Where Is Wisdom? Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1955, p. 54.)

This is true for everything from the penny-ante poker game, where the loser is out only a few cents, to the horse race, where lifetime savings can be lost by the margin of a few millimeters.

How can activities of this kind be condoned in light of the Savior’s commandment to love one another? And how can the loser help but covet what he has lost—as well as what he hasn’t gained?

Greed and covetousness can be especially damaging to human relationships when friends compete against friends for material gain. When all participants in a game pay an equal amount for a chance at the prize, some losers may resent their loss—and feelings of good-will can easily dissipate.

President Brigham Young understood this possibility. When urging the Relief Society against raffling quilts to benefit the poor, he suggested that the sisters contribute the money they would have wagered for the quilt and then donate the quilt to a needy person. In this way, they would prevent jealousy and dissension and still accomplish their charitable purposes. (See Juvenile Instructor, 1 Oct. 1902, p. 593.)

Greed afflicts governments, too. When gambling is legalized, government officials begin to count on its revenues; yet, no matter how much money comes in, the state’s appetite usually keeps growing. And as the need for more and more “painless” tax revenue rises, or as profits from state-operated gambling diminish, the government finds itself in the position of aggressively promoting gambling, where it had earlier prohibited or simply tolerated it. Instead of protecting its citizens from being victimized by the lure of gambling, the state mounts massive advertising campaigns to encourage people to participate. Citizens who otherwise may have opposed gambling embrace it because of the government’s endorsement.

Gambling, whether it is promoted by the state or by your next-door neighbor, is just not worth the effort.

No amount of money is worth the damage to personal relationships and the loss of integrity that often follow gambling. The odds that you’ll strike it rich through gambling—especially playing the lottery—are very slim anyway. In recent U.S. lotteries, for example, odds of winning the jackpot were one in 1.9 million in Massachusetts, one in 3.5 million in New York, and one in 9 million in Ohio. (See The Charlotte Observer, 10 Mar. 1984, p. 9A; Washington Post, 13 May 1984, p. A7; USA Today, 3 Aug. 1984, p. 3A.)

Unfortunately, the majority of the losers can’t afford to lose. Newsweek (2 Sept. 1985, p. 16) describes some of the victims:

—The poor. “A Maryland study found that the poorest one-third of state households bought half of all weekly lottery tickets and 60 percent of daily-game tickets.” One churchman calls the lottery “the sale of an illusion to poor people who view it as the only possibility for breaking out of the cycle of poverty they live in.”

—Minorities. “Seventy percent of those who buy my tickets are poor, black or Hispanic,” says the busiest lottery agent in New York.

—The elderly. A seventy-three-year-old man “spent $75 of his monthly pension check on tickets—and fought the urge to run home for the $50 he keeps for emergencies.” Another elderly man “waited five hours in line—only to collapse when he finally got to the counter, taking a rack of newspapers with him to the floor. His first words after being revived: ‘Can I have my tickets, please?’”

It is ironic that some of the money the states bring in through lotteries is earmarked to benefit the aged and other lottery victims! Advocates for this “tax” are silent about the inevitable increase in taxes brought about by social problems incident to gambling—such as higher welfare, law enforcement, and prison costs.

State-operated lotteries are a regressive form of taxation; that is, they take a higher percentage from poorer citizens’ incomes than from middle- and upper-class citizens’ earnings. “A tax by any other name is still a tax,” said President Gordon B. Hinckley, “except in this case the burden usually falls on the poor who can least afford to pay it. As an editorial in USA Today stated recently: ‘Lotteries aren’t painless—the overwhelming majority of players always lose. The game takes bread and money from the poor. And it is one more temptation for the compulsive gamblers who ruin careers and families with their addiction.’ (USA Today, 26 Aug. 1985.) In this context, it becomes a moral question.” (Ensign, Nov. 1985, p. 52.)

Love of neighbor as taught by the Savior leads us to have compassion for our fellowmen, to look out for their interests as we would our own. No activity that exploits others is in keeping with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“A third evil of gambling is its tendency to corrupt the participant.” (Oaks, p. 46.)

A 1984 study of prisoners in New Jersey indicated that 30 percent of male and female inmates “showed clear signs of addiction to gambling” and had experienced marital, family, employment, and financial problems related to this addiction. Over 40 percent “admitted committing illegal activities in order to gamble or pay gambling debts.” (Henry R. Lesieur, Ph.D., and Robert Klein, M.H.S., “Prisoners, Gambling and Crime,” paper presented to the 1985 Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences Annual Meetings, Las Vegas, Nevada, 31 March–4 April 1985.)

Signs of gambling problems are also evident in the U.S. on the high school level. A 1984 study showed that more than 86 percent of New Jersey’s high school students had gambled during the previous year; that number, which reflects Atlantic City’s legalization of casino gambling, is twenty-six percentage points higher than the 1974 figure for the entire U.S. adult population. Furthermore, 5.7 percent of New Jersey’s high school students “showed clear signs of pathological gambling. The percentage of gambling-related problems among the students is high: 11 percent said that gambling had harmed their family relationships; 15 percent had lied about gambling wins and losses; and 10 percent had committed crimes in order to pay for gambling. (Henry R. Lesieur, Ph.D., and Robert Klein, M.H.S., “Pathological Gambling among High School Students,” paper presented to the 6th National Conference on Gambling and Risk Taking, Atlantic City, New Jersey, 9–12 December 1984.)

Even small-time gambling can weaken one’s commitment to responsibility. What starts out as a fling can end up in tragedy when luck eludes an addicted gambler. A boy attempts suicide after squandering $6,000 on a slippery jackpot. A woman embezzles $38,000 and loses it all on the lottery. A high government official is tried for federal racketeering after prosecutors show he lost $2 million in casinos over three years.

Debts—and desperation—soar along with an unappeased appetite for one more shot at that lucky break. Reputations and lives suffer.

And all too often, one addiction can lead to another: alcoholism, drug abuse, dishonesty, immorality. “The gambling spirit … has proved a veritable demon of destruction to thousands,” said President Joseph F. Smith. (Improvement Era, Dec. 1908, p. 144.)

Some insist that legalized gambling would stifle illegal gambling. Others, such as James E. Ritchie, former director of the Presidential Commission on the Review of the National Policy toward Gambling, say one stimulates the other. (See this and other evaluations in Larry Braidfoot, Gambling: A Deadly Game, Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1985, pp. 85–88.)

Some say legalized gambling would debilitate organized crime. Others, such as FBI Director William H. Webster, disagree: “I pointed out at the time that Atlantic City was going into casinos that we knew of no situation in which legalized gambling was in place where we did not eventually have organized crime. … I really don’t see how one can expect to run legalized gambling anywhere without serious problems. … Gambling is still the largest source of revenue for organized crime.” (The American Legion Magazine, Jan. 1985, p. 14.)

“A fourth disadvantage … is the extraordinary waste of time involved in it. Those who while away their hours gambling frequently do so to the neglect of family and work.” (Oaks, p. 46.)

John Marcher, a character in a short novel by Henry James, lives every day of his life with the constant anticipation that something truly momentous is just about to happen to him—some terrible, extraordinary destiny is to be his. As this passion consumes him, he turns down love and other opportunities for a normal life, waiting for the inevitable. In the end, he comes to the horrifying realization that his wasted lifetime was, itself, his tragedy. (See The Beast in the Jungle, Kentfield, California: Allen Press, 1963.)

Similarly, some who are infected with a passion for gambling are sure that it’s only a matter of time until the inevitable happens. Yet, as the dimes and dollars slip through their fingers, time dissipates as well. And, like misspent money, it is irretrievable.

Those who spend their time gambling, said President Joseph F. Smith, are “wasting hours and days of precious time in [a] useless and unprofitable way. Yet those same people when approached, declare they have no time to spend as teachers in the Sabbath schools, and no time to attend either Sunday schools or meetings. Their church duties are neglected for lack of time, yet they spend hours, day after day, at cards.” (Improvement Era, Aug. 1903, 6:779.) Similar judgment could be made of those who neglect family and work responsibilities in favor of gambling.

What we become is determined, in large measure, by how we spend our time. “Tell me what amusements you like best and whether your amusements have become a ruling passion in your life and I will tell you what you are,” said President Joseph F. Smith. (Juvenile Instructor, 1 Sept. 1903, p. 529.)

“The fifth and final condemnation of gambling follows from other disadvantages already discussed. Whenever we as Latter-day Saints engage in any kind of conduct that is inconsistent with the companionship of the Spirit of the Lord, we pay an enormous price.” (Oaks, p. 46.)

Indeed, said Elder Oaks, “gambling’s most far-reaching and evil influence” may be that it “dulls the spiritual sensitivities of those who participate in it.” Without the companionship of the Lord’s Spirit, “we are vulnerable to temptation, prone to criticize, and subject to being tossed to and fro and buffeted by the forces of the world and the works of the evil one.” (Ensign, Nov. 1972, p. 46.)

One Latter-day Saint woman became so consumed by an appetite for playing cards, said Elder Robert L. Simpson, that she eventually gave up her calling in the Relief Society and her friendship with those with whom she had faithfully served. “Sisters in the ward continuing their lives of charity and compassionate service are now termed by her as narrow-minded, as hypocritical and do-gooders, but in reality, the only thing that changed was this woman.” (In Conference Report, Apr. 1969, p. 86.)

“They who gamble, who walk with chance, suffer degeneration of character,” said Elder John A. Widtsoe; “they become spiritually flabby; they end as enemies of a wholesome society. A gambling den, however beautifully housed, is the ugliest place on earth. The tense participants live in a silence broken only, over the tables, by the swish of the wings of darkness. There is an ever-present brooding spirit of horror of an unknown evil. It is the devil’s own home.” (Improvement Era, Apr. 1940, p. 225.)

The greed and selfishness associated with gambling are incompatible with the spirit of charity: “Let thy bowels … be full of charity towards all men,” said the Lord.

The sapping of spiritual sensitivity that may occur is incompatible with the spirit of virtue: “Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly,” He commanded.

The blessings promised to the charitable and virtuous are infinitely greater than any premium gambling may offer: “Then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.

“The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.” (D&C 121:45–46.)

How to Fight It

1. We can evaluate our own activities in light of the five points raised by Elder Oaks: Do my activities encourage me to try to get something for little or no effort? Do they fill me with greed or other selfish feelings? Do they distort my sense of honesty and morality? Are they a significant waste of time? Do they cause me to lose the Spirit of the Lord?

2. We can share with our families and others the counsel of Church leaders and resolve to avoid all forms of gambling.

3. We can encourage worthwhile forms of recreation in our homes and communities.

4. We can join with other concerned citizens in efforts to stop the spread of legalized gambling and to eliminate current laws that allow or encourage it.

[photos] Photography by Steve Tregeagle