Not that long ago, legal gambling was confined to one state, Nevada, which, along the way, had developed a reputation as the place to get divorced or buy sex; things forbidden everywhere else were permitted there. We usually think of taboos as deeply entrenched, separating the dirty from the clean, yet not only are Las Vegas and other Nevada cities now among the fastest growing in the United States, but the industry associated with their once unseemly nightlife is featured on more cable-television stations than one can count.
Gambling, moreover, has taken root in a country with a Puritan background that is to this day marked by public religiosity. Once upon a time, religious figures were second to none in their condemnation of gambling: Billy Sunday, the prototypical right-wing revivalist, denounced it in his sermons in the early 20th century, while Walter Rauschenbusch, the left-wing founder of the Social Gospel, called it "the vice of the savage." Yet in contemporary America, not only are religious figures generally quiet on the issue, but some of them, like the The Book of Virtues author William J. Bennett, have themselves been gamblers, while others — one thinks of Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition — have been implicated in efforts to charge Indian tribes exorbitant fees for lobbying on behalf of the American Indian gaming industry.
It would be relatively easy to conclude that gambling has become so prominent in American life because we have become a hedonistic country in which anything goes. But as the Rev. Richard McGowan, a Jesuit priest and gambling expert at Boston College, reminded me, 30 years ago gambling was considered a sin while smoking was fashionable, whereas today the reverse is true. We continue to be deeply puritanical in some aspects of our culture while decidedly libertarian in others; at a time when we see debates about hate speech, witness campaigns by feminists against pornography, and hear politicians speak about zero tolerance for under-age drinking or sexual misconduct, gambling is on the rise. It resonates with the permissive rather than the prohibitive side of our culture.
The title quote is attributed to Wilson Mizner.