“Friends, whatever ye are addicted to, the Tempter will come in that thing; and when he can trouble you, then he gets advantage over you, and then you are gone.” —George Fox (Epistle 10, 1652)
As a prison chaplain, I frequently talk with incarcerated women who are getting ready for their return to the community. “I don’t ever want to come back to prison—and I’m scared.” Nicolle (not her actual name) was nearing the end of a four-year bid. She had lost custody—and even the right to communicate—with her four children. I asked if she was worried about relapse. “Yes,” she said, “but not to drugs or alcohol. I was using before I got locked up, but I think I’ll be able to leave that stuff alone. What I’m really addicted to is fast money, the thrill of fast money.”
As twenty-first-century Quakers consider our historic testimony on gambling, we need to take seriously the addictive nature of “fast money.” The word “addiction” is sometimes used in a broader, more colloquial sense—and, in that sense, we live in a society addicted to fast money. But gambling is also addictive in the narrow, more specific sense of the word—like alcohol, amphetamines, and opioids. Addiction to gambling resembles drug and alcohol addiction so closely that “gambling disorder” is now grouped with substance use disorders as a clinical syndrome.
By definition, addictive behaviors continue despite negative consequences for oneself and others. There are stories of enthralled gamblers who neglected young children, allowed their bladders to overflow, or went long stretches without eating. A person with addictive or disordered gambling “chases” their losses with bigger and bigger bets, convinced that their luck will turn. Like people addicted to drugs or alcohol, gamblers become preoccupied with betting, require larger and larger wagers to feel a thrill, and suffer restless craving when they try to stop. Neither winning nor losing compels the gambler to quit; they are addicted to the thrill of betting itself. When savings are depleted, they sell possessions or turn to embezzlement and theft. Families are hurt. Careers are derailed. Some go to prison. Many consider suicide.
Much like drug and alcohol addictions, disordered gambling appears to be a brain condition involving control centers and pathways that regulate motivation, reward, and decision making. These are the same brain pathways that process motivation and reward for all of us—the same pathways that fired in my brain when I enjoyed dinner with my wife last night. For those with addiction, the pathways have been hijacked by behaviors or substances that satisfy short-term urges but threaten longer-term harm.
Studies of twins have shown significant roles for both genetic and environmental factors in the development of disordered gambling. Some biologic predisposition—coupled with access to casinos and other types of betting—put young people especially at risk. Not surprisingly, people who struggle with drugs and alcohol and those who experience anxiety and depression are at higher risk for disordered gambling.
Access or exposure to gambling is a key environmental factor in the development of addiction. Legal gambling in the United States varies by location. Gambling in Virginia, where I live, includes horse racing, a state lottery, charitable bingo and raffles, and poker games played at home. Virginians looking for casino gambling can cross the border into Maryland.
Casinos—once limited to Nevada and Atlantic City, New Jersey—multiplied in the 1990s with tribal and riverboat establishments. They are now found in most states. Once, out of curiosity, I visited a commercial casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa. On a sunny summer afternoon, the huge interior was dark except for the flashing neon screens of slot machines and bar advertisements. The music that blared from overhead speakers was punctuated with the sound of clinking coins. Here and there, people sat alone playing electronic gaming machines, which were designed to look like old-fashioned mechanical slot machines. These computerized systems are engineered to entice customers into an addictive “zone” of continuous gambling—oblivious to the passage of time and persisting despite deepening financial losses. I could not bear the casino aisles for very long. I needed to walk back into the sunshine.
Opposition to gambling persisted among different branches as the Religious Society of Friends split in the nineteenth century.
Quakers have historically opposed “gaming” and “gaming-places.” In 1669, William Penn decried the extravagance of gaming and taverns. Money saved by a more temperate life could be used to alleviate poverty and rescue those held captive. In the eighteenth century, London Yearly Meeting’s Minutes and Advices urged Friends to avoid games of chance and horse racing—along with theater, dancing, and other entertainment—as “foolish and wicked pastimes.” Gaming often took place in taverns, and Quakers associated their concerns about gambling and excess alcohol. For example, a query from 1755 asks: “Are friends careful to avoid all vain sports, places of diversion, gaming, and all unnecessary frequenting of alehouses or taverns, excess in drinking, and intemperance of every kind?”
Opposition to gambling persisted among different branches as the Religious Society of Friends split in the nineteenth century. Elias Hicks warned that “licensed gambling, which abounds under the name of lotteries” was “an abominable evil” that ruined families, eroded virtue, and led to crime. The English Orthodox Friend Joseph John Gurney lumped “the horrors of the gambling house” alongside war and the slave trade as evidence of humanity’s need for redemption.
In the twentieth century, Quakers’ historic opposition to gambling was cited by Britain’s Meeting for Sufferings in a 1995 public statement against the introduction of the National Lottery. Among other concerns, the statement said that the lottery “promotes an addiction to gambling, exacerbated by the addition of Instant Game scratch-cards to the scheme.” A study by Helena Chambers showed that less than 10 percent of surveyed Quakers bought a lottery ticket in the previous year, compared with about 60 percent of the general population in Britain. Proceeds from this National Lottery fund what the lottery calls “good causes.” While Quaker organizations generally avoid use of lottery funds, individual Friends in Britain Yearly Meeting wrestle with whether to use this resource for social programs that they support.
Elizabeth Fry, a nineteenth-century English Quaker and sister to Joseph John Gurney, was a well-known prison reformer. She included gambling in her description of the habits and the plight of incarcerated women:
For Counties as well as Boroughs, an old gate-house, or the ancient feudal castle, with its dungeons, its damp, close and narrow cells, and its windows overlooking the street, often formed the common prison of offenders of either sex, and of all grades of crime. The danger of escape was provided against, by heavy irons and fetters. Dirt and disease abounded: and even where the building contained wards and yards, the women were imperfectly separated from the men, whilst idleness, gambling, drinking, and swearing, were habitual amongst them. These evils were magnified by the crowded state of the prisons; for crime had enormously increased, and convictions more than doubled within the ten preceding years. —Memoir of the Life of Elizabeth Fry (1847)
While the current situation for incarcerated women in America is undoubtedly better than what Fry encountered in London’s Newgate Prison, there are some similarities. In the United States, women are experiencing increased rates of incarceration, crowding, insufficient opportunities for work or school, and the availability of contraband drugs behind prison bars. When I walk into a housing unit, I might encounter a poker game in which candy or potato chips from the commissary serve as stakes. At one time, I might have considered the poker game to be a harmless social distraction amid the many challenges of confined living. Now, as I consider the addictive nature of gambling—and Nicolle’s struggle with the lure of “fast money”—I am taking pause.
In a Virginia prison, it is against the rules for an incarcerated person to engage in gambling, possess gambling paraphernalia, or run a gambling pool. Using commissary goods to place bets in a card game could lead to charges and penalties, especially if someone skipped school or work to play. Betting pools for NCAA basketball or the Superbowl championship are against the rules on the “inside.” Yet the prison recreation department organizes bingo games with prizes as an incentive activity for those who remain ticket-free. A charitable raffle conducted by a local foundation helps to fund community college scholarships at the prison. The recipient of that scholarship could easily be a woman serving time for embezzlement, a woman who resorted to theft while chasing the losses of her gambling addiction.
Our testimonies as Friends should bear public witness to truth as we have come to know it.
I have been a convinced Friend for 30 years, and I do not recall any discussion about gambling in my own meeting. My first awareness of the traditional stance on gambling came about when I studied Quaker perspectives on the use of drugs and alcohol. Some years ago, I was surprised but not distressed when members of meeting invited our then-teenage son along to the horse races. And those raffle tickets for the prison’s community college scholarship fund? I have sold them in the meetinghouse.
In prison, the word “testimony” refers to statements made in court, statements used to convict or acquit. It also refers to a person’s public witness of faith, a personal story of spiritual redemption and commitment, offered for the good of others. In our Sunday afternoon chapel service, when women give their testimony from the pulpit, they often talk about their struggles with various addictions and their hopes for freedom.
Both in the courtroom and behind the pulpit, testimony refers to public truth, not to a privately held conviction or practice. Likewise, our testimonies as Friends should bear public witness to truth as we have come to know it. Gambling is addictive. By reasonable estimates, about three million American adults are currently affected by disordered gambling. Our individual and collective testimony about gambling—like our testimonies about drugs and alcohol—must take seriously the potential for addiction and the consequent personal suffering and social harm.
Larger contexts of integrity and economic justice—as well as the suffering engendered by gambling addiction—should shape our perspective as Friends.
Concern about addiction is only one question facing Friends as we consider a twenty-first-century Quaker perspective on gambling. How do we view the use of public lotteries, tribal casinos, and charitable raffles to fund education and other needs in the United States? Quaker views on dancing, theater, and music have changed; is occasional gambling an acceptable form of entertainment? Is it ethical to use racehorses or greyhounds for sport? Does speculative investing have a place in a just economy? Most Americans gamble in one form or another. Abstinence from gambling is decidedly countercultural.
As I reflect on these complex questions about gambling, I think back to my conversation with Nicolle. She said, “As a felon, I know I’m lucky to have a job waiting for me when I get out. But it will be hard to earn a living slowly, to work for eight or ten dollars an hour, day after day. I’ll be tempted to go back to fast money.” Eight dollars an hour will not be a sufficient wage. Barely making it from one paycheck to the next, Nicolle will be tempted to take a risk. Larger contexts of integrity and economic justice—as well as the suffering engendered by gambling addiction—should shape our perspective as Friends.