The Pervasive Problem of Online Gambling

Pastors Must Address an Omnipresent Culturally Accepted Sin

Modern evangelical pastors haven’t had much to say lately about the numerous problems that widespread online sports betting has ushered in. Like the sin of gluttony, most American pastors shy away from addressing the sins brought on by the gambling industry, which recent research confirms. As sports betting has become ubiquitous in American culture, the interest among pastors in contesting it has waned, an all-too-common tendency in evangelicalism.

Earlier this year, Lifeway found that although Protestant pastors generally think sports betting is morally wrong, increasing numbers think it’s simply not worth addressing. In 2023, a clear majority of pastors—56 percent—didn’t tackle gambling in any way over the past year (just seven percent of pastors discouraged their congregants from betting on sports during a sermon). Overall, 67 percent of Presbyterian/Reformed pastors surveyed said that they haven’t felt the need to do anything about this issue. This is a sea change compared with the stated intentions of pastors that Lifeway recorded in 2018, when the Supreme Court effectively legalized sports betting across the nation. At that time, Lifeway found that just five percent of pastors didn’t think it was important to address gambling.

To its credit, The Gospel Coalition has featured various articles on the potential pitfalls of gambling. Emily Belz has written a handful of pieces for Christianity Today specifically on this topic, noting in a story prior to the 2022 Super Bowl that only 36 percent of evangelicals see sports gambling as an issue. Oddly, more conservative evangelical ministries have not devoted as much time to this problem. The most relevant search results from Ligonier’s website yield a short Tabletalk piece from 2016 on ministering to addicts. Although Desiring God features more articles, along with commentaries from John Piper, that directly speak to online gambling, they stopped covering the issue sometime in 2019. This is strange considering the wall-to-wall advertisements for online sports betting that are currently being pumped out across all media platforms.

To say that sports betting is on the rise in America is a considerable understatement. According to Forbes, in the subsequent five and a half years since the Supreme Court’s ruling, 38 states plus D.C. have legalized some form of sports betting. A recent 60 Minutes report found that over that time period, “Americans have spent more than a quarter of a trillion dollars [on] sports betting,” which matches the GDP of Greece. The American Gaming Association noted that in 2023 alone Americans wagered nearly $120 billion on sports, a nearly 28 percent increase from the previous year. The Associated Press reported that according to GeoComply, a Canadian-based company that tracks online transaction data, 13.7 million new betting accounts have been added since the start of the 2023-2024 N.F.L. season. All told, Ben Krauss noted at Matthew Yglesias’s Substack that $220 billion has been bet through sports books since 2018. 

The most recent Super Bowl earlier this month boosted these numbers into the stratosphere. Andrew Brandt of Sports Illustrated wrote that an estimated 68 million Americans placed bets on the big game this year. FanDuel took in 14 million bets that totaled $307 million, both record highs. According to Brandt, whose podcast is sponsored by FanDuel competitor DraftKings, sports gambling permeates the sports media industry. Ads for FanDuel and DraftKings saturate the broadcasts of all major sports leagues. The ticker at the bottom of ESPN broadcasts has been including betting odds for years, as has FS1’s and other competitors. “Mainstream and ubiquitous sports betting, once such a taboo, is here to stay,” Brandt notes approvingly.

Late last year ESPN even launched a new betting app in partnership with PENN Entertainment, which is currently available in 17 states. According to its website, PENN owns the “largest retail gaming footprint across North America,” operating 43 casinos and racetracks in 20 states that feature 44,000 slot machines and lottery terminals at their properties. Apple also recently launched Apple Sports, an app that will feature betting odds, along with scores, from all major American sports, plus European soccer leagues.

Surprisingly, Christians who played in the N.F.L. have been some of the most visible public faces in the online gambling push. The Manning family, including Archie, Peyton, Eli, and Cooper, partnered with Caesars Sportsbook in 2021. As ESPN reported at the time, they signed on to “make live appearances at fan-engagement events, promote responsible gambling and serve as strategic advisers.” Noting that it wasn’t the “typical partnership between a sports betting company and major talent,” Ceasars co-president Chris Holdren said proudly, “We’re welcoming the most acclaimed family in football history to be integrated holistically into the Caesars family.” 

And the Mannings aren’t the only ones to do this. Former Saints quarterback Drew Brees, for example, has a relationship with PointsBet, while Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders is with BetMGM. Kurt Warner, a quarterback who won a Super Bowl with the then-St. Louis Rams, has appeared in a commercial from the N.F.L. on responsible betting. All these players are also known for their evangelical Christian faith.

American Reformer co-founder Aaron Renn seems to be one of the only public evangelicals who has kept a focus on the problem of rampant sports betting. He’s rightly condemned it as “preying on and exploiting the most vulnerable people” and “approving a vice and seedy activities by people at many of the highest levels of society.” It’s part of the move toward government-as-racket, legalizing vices that only used to be encouraged by the mob and other dregs of society. For all the talk about caring for the poor that you hear from elites today, online gambling particularly affects lower-income communities. And unlike systemic racism, which supposedly plagues police departments nationwide, its deleterious effects are well-documented.

A 2013 study conducted by the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions found that problem gambling affects poorer neighborhoods twice as much as wealthier ones. Another study done at the same institution looked at 18 separate surveys, finding that one out of 10 college students has a problem with gambling, a number far higher than estimates for the U.S. general population as a whole. A Siena College survey found that more than half of young men who gamble online—the biggest demographic in sports betting—say they feel they’re betting more than they should. 

Since 2018, as online sports gambling has become omnipresent, these problems have only gotten worse. A representative from the National Council on Problem Gambling told the New York Times that he saw a clear uptick in the number of gambling addicts after the federal ban was overturned. After New Jersey legalized sports betting five years ago, calls to the state’s gambling addiction line have tripled. Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that “total call traffic to Ohio’s problem gambling helpline was up 38% in October when compared with the same month in 2022,” noting an increase in calls from teens and twenty-somethings. A similar increase happened in Michigan as well.

Earlier in February, the Wall Street Journal published a long exposé that shows the insidious nature of the online gambling world. Kavita Fischer, a recently divorced psychiatrist with two sons, ended up losing more than $190,000 over the span of a year to PointsBet, a gambling app she downloaded through DraftKings—the same app promoted by former N.F.L. quarterback Drew Brees. Fischer was egged on by a VIP host who doled out tens of thousands of dollars in gambling credits to keep her fix going. “Companies closely track betting habits 24 hours a day,” writes WSJ reporter Katherine Sayre, “collecting such data as how much time each customer spends on an app, how much money they gamble, what kind of bets they place and how much they lose.” These companies use tools invented by Big Tech to squeeze every last dollar from their customers through a carefully deployed set of sophisticated manipulation techniques.

If you guessed that the Christian tradition would be aghast at our modern worship of gambling, you’d be correct. Sifting through what the Reformers had to say about the topic, Jordan Ballor maintains that they “generally took a jaundiced view toward gambling and games of chance.” Although they mostly did not view all participation in such activities as sinful, they took a fairly hardline stance against games that were taken up purely for entertainment purposes. In his A Christian’s Reasonable Service, for example, Dutch theologian Wilhelmus à Brakel thundered, “Gambling and Lotteries are sin: No opportunity ought to be given for subjects to squander their goods, for God has forbidden this.” 

The likes of John Calvin and Thomas Gataker thought that casting lots, or the process of making a determination regarding ownership, was not sinful per se, as is evidenced by its use in the Old Testament by the Aaronic priesthood and Joshua, among others. But those concerns seem utterly quaint compared to what’s happening now. Ballor notes that “gambling itself as a kind of civic virtue and a form of public service,” a now-omnipresent characteristic of modern America that Ted Gioia recently argued is part of the “dopamine culture.” There is little doubt that the Reformers, along with nearly every major figure from the Christian tradition, would be appalled at what’s taking place in America today and call us to national repentance.

As America slowly turns into Pleasure Island, the cursed place in Disney’s animated version of Pinocchio that offers endless vices for wayward children, pastors need to make the case against online sports betting. A country in which a citizenry increasingly praises vice and sees any serious practice of virtue as “Puritan” is one in need of great help.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Mike Sabo

Mike Sabo is a Contributing Editor of American Reformer and an Assistant Editor of The American Mind, the online journal of the Claremont Institute. His writing has appeared at RealClearPolitics, The Federalist, Public Discourse, and American Greatness, among other outlets. He lives with his wife and son in Cincinnati.

3 thoughts on “The Pervasive Problem of Online Gambling

  1. I am going to post a link to this article on Facebook because of the importance of the topic and what it says.

    From what I’ve overheard from young people talking about gambling, betting is a way of getting money without contributing anything to society. And that should be seen as an ethic that taught in a consumer society. That one’s significance is found in what one consumes rather than in what one contributes to others.

    Thank you for the article.

  2. I think that the church has not done a very good job of laying out the case against gambling in general. I can’t think of anything scripturally speaking that outright condemns it. But the gambling industry is absolutely acting predatorily against vulnerable people. They are using ever-evolving and sophisticated techniques to create addiction. So the question becomes, where should we focus our attack? On the gamblers themselves, or on the predatory companies?

  3. I’d be very curious to know how pervasive state sponsored lotteries (for the education of our children, obviously) were in similar metrics for a comparison with sports betting before PASPA, between PASPA’s enactment (Oregon, Delaware, Nevada, and Montana were given exemptions and more might have been granted) and the Murphy v NCAA ruling in which all four “conservative” justices joined in, I think legitimately, discarding PASPA in its entirety though not for the primary reason I would have chucked it.

    How many of these state lotteries were enacted by Republican majorities and/or Republican governors in such conservative bulwarks as South Carolina, Idaho, and South Dakota?

    Surely a state operated lottery is much more a “government-as-racket” than state permitted and regulated sports betting? Like sports betting, state lotteries are also marketed and advertised on-line and in broadcast media.

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