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Campaign against state lottery gets key push from churches

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–With the battle against a proposed state lottery in its final weekend, numerous pastors and gambling opponents urged churches throughout Tennessee to let their voice be heard in the Nov. 5 general election.

Tennessee is one of three states that does not have legalized gambling, which Tennessee Baptist Convention Executive Director James Porch hopes will remain the case.

Porch recalled the New Testament account of soldiers casting lots for Jesus Christ’s tunic during a Nov. 3 message at Radnor Baptist Church in Nashville.

“As he hung there bleeding, dying moment by moment … they gathered at the foot of that cross and they began to gamble,” said Porch, who leads Tennessee’s 3,000 Southern Baptist churches.

Likening the crucifixion scene to the state’s lottery referendum, Porch told church members they had a choice — stand with Christ or gather with those “who gamble out of greed and manipulation.”

From special bulletin inserts to sermons devoted entirely to the lottery, many pastors used the last Sunday before election day to urge their congregations to vote.

In the southeast town of Cleveland, the 4,300-member First Baptist Church passed out anti-lottery brochures, bulletin inserts and donated several thousand dollars for newspaper advertising. Phil Griffin, pastor of the church, turned over his pulpit several weeks ago to Dan Ireland, the head of the anti-gambling Alabama Citizens Action Program.

In Memphis, Democratic state Sen. Steve Cohen, the state’s chief lottery proponent, spent Sunday morning watching televised anti-lottery sermons.

One program featured Adrian Rogers, pastor of the 27,000-member Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, and Ireland, who helped defeat Alabama’s 1999 lottery referendum.

“I see the churches being used as political instruments,” Cohen told the Nashville Tennessean.

If approved, the referendum would lift a constitutional ban on a lottery and clear the way for lawmakers to establish games that would fund college scholarships first, then preschool programs and school construction.

Porch said he has been pleased with the support that Tennessee Baptists have demonstrated over the past year.

“Churches have responded to the call,” he told Baptist Press. “It has been excellent. We had a network in place through our local Baptist associations and that’s how we’ve been able to fight against the lottery.

“My hat goes off to our directors of mission,” he said. “And we are also thankful to LifeWay (Christian Resources). They’ve joined us in a marvelous manner.”

The Tennessee Baptist Convention distributed 3.2 million bulletin inserts and 100,000 copies of a 32-page magazine through 67 association offices.

Despite religious leaders’ high-profile role in the fight, anti-lottery forces have avoided casting the vote as a sin issue, instead treating it as a policy and economic matter.

They argue that a lottery would hurt children, the poor and the economy and wouldn’t help K-12 education.

Joe M. Rodgers, chairman of the Gambling Free Tennessee Alliance and a former ambassador to France, told Baptist Press that Tennessee Baptists have led the fight against the lottery since the early days of the battle.

“I am cautiously optimistic that we can win,” Rodgers said. “I truly believe God is in control, but God wants his people to get out and vote. If we do, I believe we will win this thing.

“I’ve never seen such enthusiasm from the churches,” he said. “The Baptists have always been the leader but Methodists and other denominations have done their part, too.”

Porch, in turn, praised media coverage of the lottery issue, calling it “fair and balanced.”

“The media has been extremely good to work with during the whole period,” Porch said. “They have been courteous and fair.”

David Waters, a columnist for Memphis Commercial Appeal, used his Nov. 2 column to rail against the lottery.

“For every jackpot winner, there will be millions of lottery losers,” he wrote. “The biggest losers will be the poor suckers who get hooked. Most of them will be our poorer and less educated neighbors who will buy the most tickets. The astronomical odds of hitting the jackpot won’t seem any worse to them than the odds they face every day.

“So they will gladly spend the rent money, the utility money, the bread money for one chance in a million to get out of the inner city or the outer limits of rural areas.

“The more tickets they buy, the less likely they will escape.”

Syndicated financial talk show host Dave Ramsey said in the week preceding the vote, “People play the lottery with money that they otherwise would have spent with the small business owners who run the furniture stores, the markets, the show stores, the restaurants and so on. The lottery is a direct competitor with small businesses for people’s discretionary income.

“Worse yet,” the Nashville-based Ramsey said, “it is run by the state, and that puts the government in competition with small business. That’s just wrong.”

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  • Todd Starnes