This year, gamblers were predicted to spend $16 billion betting on the Super Bowl. For perspective, that’s about 35 times what it cost to build the Phoenix Cardinals’ stadium where the game was played. Now that sports betting is legal in most states, the industry is, in some ways, bigger than the sports themselves. This has already changed the way sports are played and watched, especially as the bets get weirder. Gamblers watching this year’s Super Bowl could bet on how long the National Anthem would last and what color the Gatorade would be that the winning team would pour on their coach.
In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Matthew Loftus argued that America has gone “too far in legalizing vice.” According to some research, at least 50 percent of gambling revenue in the U.S. is from people who meet the criteria for “problem gamblers.” The organization that is supposed to help, the National Council on Problem Gambling, is funded by the gambling industry itself.
The Lines Can Be Blurry
Whether or not government should limit individual choice is a very difficult question to answer and involves numerous variables. Abraham Kuyper’s idea of “sphere sovereignty” asserts that God created different aspects of life and culture with their own authorities so that they would flourish for the glory of God and the good of people. The authorities function best when they do not overstep into another sphere. However, when a particular authority fails, another must step in. For example, God gave the authority over children to their parents, not to the state. When the state must step in, something has gone wrong.
These lines can be blurry. Generally speaking, the argument against governmental involvement in what we would call “vices,” such as gambling or recreational drugs, is that people should keep authority over their own choices so long as they are not a danger to others. Although a good principle per se, it is largely dependent on the ability of the population to govern itself.
Laws mostly are downstream from the rest of culture. But the reverse can also be true. Laws also shape how we think about the world around us. Laws are, Scripture says, a “schoolmaster.”
Laws as a ‘Schoolmaster’
Ten years ago, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt described in his book The Righteous Mind how people make moral decisions. His research suggested we are less rational than we think, operating most often from sub-conscious moral intuitions. Although God created us with the capacity to learn from mistakes and mature into better, moral decision-makers, we tend to live “from the gut,” or what C.S. Lewis called “the chest.”
If our intuitions do influence our moral decisions, even overriding our best intentions and our rationality, we’d do well to pay attention to what is shaping them. What’s legally available (or not) shapes them, and not just because people don’t want to get in trouble. Laws create conditions, such as whether we have access to certain products and advertising. Laws make some financial incentives possible, but not others. They can also normalize or stigmatize behaviors. In other words, laws play a role in fostering the habits of a people, and people tend to be formed by their habits. Laws should not enable and should never incentivize bad habits.
Good habits, on the other hand, also form our moral intuitions. After leading the Israelites out of Egypt, God gave the people meticulous instructions for observing the Passover “throughout your generations, as a statute forever.” Jesus instructed His disciples to continue to break bread and drink the cup, “in remembrance” of Him, until He comes again. God knew that good, even physical, habits would enable us to remember His faithfulness. If habits are that essential for remembering, how much more so for obedience, gratitude, repentance, and love of God and neighbor?
Remembering Who We Are and Who God Is
Lent is a time set aside each year in the Church calendar to consider our habits, evaluate them, and start new ones. Historically, the Church has incorporated fasting during these 40 days before Easter, as Jesus did in the desert. It is a way of remembering who we are, in light of how God made us and what Christ accomplished in His death and resurrection. It is hard to imagine anything more countercultural, especially in a culture that caters to vice and expects so little of us in terms of virtue.
This way of remembering who God is and what He has done for us is a way of forming the kind of virtue that sets God’s people apart.