The Ohio Valley, my home for three decades, is a land of great scenic beauty, archaeological and historic treasure, wildlife habitat, agriculture, and interspersion of industry centered around electric power generation and transport of heavy commodities, such as coal, chemicals, and grain.
Along the thousand miles through which the Ohio flows from Pittsburgh to Cairo there always has been a truce, albeit sometimes an uneasy one, between all these vital elements. Each of them is indeed vital for a complete life. We cannot live humanely without natural beauty. We cannot live properly without due reverence toward other of God’s creatures and toward the generations who came before us. Nor can we live in any complexity without food and fuel provided by commercial enterprise.
Now, however, a new interest has come to the river valley, one which has no vital importance—one which, when faced head-on, actually may prove to be destructive of life. That interest is gambling.
Games of chance, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, when played for stakes that do not endanger one’s livelihood, are not contrary to justice. Yet, the Catechism warns that “the passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement.” Enslavement to gambling unfortunately has hit this country in a tidal wave—all in the name of economic development. The casino industry, by cutting towns, counties, and states into its profits, entices them to rely on gambling as tax revenue. Appealing to their greed and luring them to take something for nothing, the casino becomes partner to local and state government in a new form of taxation.
Riverboat gambling, or gaming as the casino industry calls it, has captured our inland waterways, turning sleepy, often poor river towns into Meccas for busloads of retirees, welfare recipients, or anyone who has time to kill and a yearning to make money without working for it. Now that Illinois and Indiana have voted to license casino boats on the Ohio, one such license has been awarded to the pretty little town of Rising Sun, Indiana, across the river from our farm at Rabbit Hash in Boone County, Kentucky.
Rising Sun clamored for a casino boat. It sent delegates in T-shirts to Indianapolis to lobby for a permit; it described itself as a small town drying up and dying off. A gambling boat would save Rising Sun. It would provide jobs for the town’s residents. It would bring tourists, who would patronize Rising Sun shops and dine in its restaurants. Above all, the town would receive a percentage of the casino profits. Pieces of the pie likewise would go to other towns in the county and to the state. Everyone, in other words, would gain from riverboat gambling.
A minority of Rising Sun residents objected. They knew that a casino boat would change their town irrevocably—and not for the better. They resented handing their independence to a parasitic industry that produces nothing and gives nothing. The gambling business, however, since its early neon and plastic days, has grown sophisticated.
Enter, then, Dan Azark, of Hyatt Development. Wearing a double-breasted navy suit, or khaki open-necked sport shirt and slacks, according to his reading of the particular audience, Mr. Azark spoke softly but articulately of the “destination resort” his company intended to build at Rising Sun. With a hotel, golf course, and retail center, as well as a casino boat, Hyatt would create a “destination resort that only happens to have a riverboat casino component.” Ignoring the fact that without a casino boat the “destination resort” would have no reason to exist at all, Mr. Azark went on to describe how patrons entering the resort would travel between grassy berms bordering the golf course so as to move from the “resort experience” to the “gaming experience.”
A typical modern who would never impose morality on the public sphere, Mr. Azark reminded his audiences that “surely no one was there to debate the morality of gambling.” And yet surely that is exactly why, ultimately, they were there. Even proponents of the casino complex never claimed gambling to be good in itself or the gambling industry to be an admirable enterprise. What they argued, really, was that gambling was the only business they could attract, and thus they were willing to accept it despite its effect on their town and its people.
Our national love affair with gambling is decadent. A friendly poker game or church bingo is one thing. Herding people into a huge riverboat, in which there are no clocks and no windows, so that they can gamble away their meager purse during a three-hour cruise, is quite another.