EDITORS’ NOTE: The following three stories focus on legalized gambling and churches’ response to the issue.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Anti-gambling leaders say a recent smear campaign against an Alabama moral concerns leader provides a textbook example of how far gamblers will go to expand their interests.
Dan Ireland, former president of the Alabama Baptist State Convention and executive director of the Alabama Citizens Action Program (ALCAP), said anonymous letters linking him to a casino were an attempt to defame him.
“The effort was geared to discredit my credibility and ALCAP’s,” Ireland said of phony letters alleging contributions to the organization from a Mississippi casino company. The donations were supposedly to thwart competition from springing up in Alabama.
“If the intent was to divide our ranks, it boomeranged,” Ireland said. “It opened the public’s eyes to the kind of people they’re dealing with. I think (the opposition) thought they could bring enough pressure on me to step aside.”
Paul Jones, executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Christian Action Commission, said Ireland’s long record of integrity and effectiveness made him a natural target for gamblers.
“This isn’t an issue of Dan, it’s an issue of proponents of gambling who are willing to pervert the truth and go to any means to achieve their ends,” said Jones, a leading Southern Baptist critic of the gambling industry.
One reason, observed Tom Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling (NCALG), is gambling’s lack of grassroots support.
“It’s driven from the top down,” said Grey, a United Methodist minister who lives near Chicago. “They don’t have any popular support. George doesn’t say to Ethel over morning coffee, ‘You know, what Alabama needs is off-track betting.’
“It’s their dollars and muscle against our people. The question is who will speak for the people if the politicians and lobbyists are brokering to use gambling against communities.”
The case in Alabama made headlines when a pair of letters, supposedly written to Ireland on Casino Magic stationery, were circulated in September to state legislators. In October the same, unsigned letters appeared in the mailboxes of more than 3,000 Alabama Baptist pastors.
However, an investigation by The Alabama Baptist newsjournal brought denials from Casino Magic officials of any ties to the letters. The report also revealed that the firm has an interest in a 92-acre site in Mobile, in case gambling is legalized in the state.
The newspaper also pointed out various inconsistencies in the unsigned letters and a cover sheet that went to pastors. Mailed from two different cities, the packets carried no return address.
Ireland said he first became aware of the matter when an Associated Press reporter called this summer to ask for a reaction.
Although the reporter admitted the letters had been given to him by a gambling lobbyist, he refused to show them to the ALCAP leader, saying they had been given to him in confidence. Consequently, Ireland said he couldn’t comment since he had never seen them.
The first mailing generated negative reaction from legislators, many offering assistance to combat the smear attempt. One told Ireland, “Dan, you of all people should not be attacked like this. You can disagree on issues without having a vicious and slanderous attack.”
If anything, the phony letters made ALCAP’S position stronger, said Ireland, who holds a master’s degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of divinity from Samford University in Birmingham. However, he admitted it can be frustrating trying to combat rumors.
“You can’t even pin it down,” he said. “I’ve been here 20 years and this is the most vicious thing I’ve ever been through. These are the only charges brought against me as a person involving my ethics or morality.”
This incident demonstrates the need for anti-gambling forces everywhere to maintain their integrity, Ireland said. That includes not accepting any funds from gamblers or mysterious front organizations that may have links to casinos, he said.
Although ALCAP is an independent organization, it receives most of its funding from the Alabama Baptist State Convention and member churches, as well as several other denominations. It receives about 15 percent of its annual budget from the Cooperative Program, he said.
“If you’re going to fight an issue, you’re putting a question mark on your own credibility,” Ireland said of accepting questionable donations. “If you’re going to fight gambling, you don’t need to be taking money or other support from gamblers.”
The church in general needs to be aware of funding sources, Jones added, since there will be some practical consequences to gambling during the next five to 10 years. If someone wants to tithe from millions of lottery winnings to ease their conscience, for example, a church must decide whether it will accept the money, he explained. Taking it may compromise its witness, he said.
In addition, Jones said the Alabama case poses a warning to the church to not engage in similar tactics.
“We have not always been nice to those who oppose us,” he commented. “Christians are very good, anytime there’s an issue we oppose, with rising up and not calling it blessed. But sometimes we go after the person instead of the issue.”
Walker is a freelance writer in Louisville, Ky