Take a good look around the next time you sit down in church. Your fellow congregants will determine whether Tennessee gets a state-sponsored lottery. So says Michael Gilstrap, executive director of the Gambling Free Tennessee Alliance, a group established to defeat a state lottery.
The second item on the November 5 ballot -- just below the governor's race and right above the U.S. Senate choices -- asks voters if they want to amend Article XI, Section 5 of Tennessee's Constitution to allow the legislature to establish a state lottery, which now is banned.
The lottery's net proceeds would provide college scholarships at state schools. Leftover money would be spent on construction projects for schools and for early-learning programs and after-school programs.
Only one vote above half of those cast in the governor's race is needed to amend the constitution. Polls show Tennessee voters want a lottery by a two-to-one margin. Should that margin hold true in most Tennessee churches, the lottery is a done deal, Gilstrap says. If not, anti-lottery forces have a chance.
Gilstrap's group is counting on the Church of Christ and Southern Baptists, who account for more than a million Tennessee voters, to turn out against the lottery proposal. The Tennessee Baptist Convention reportedly has published a magazine and an insert that will go into church-service programs this month, telling members why they should vote against the lottery proposal.
"I've said this: The only way for the lottery to pass is for the Baptists and the Churches of Christ to vote for it. The only way for it to be defeated is for the folks we refer to as conservative evangelical Christians to vote against it," says Gilstrap."It's not so much a moral issue. It's that you don't pass something like this without those folks voting for it or against it."
State Senator Steve Cohen (D-Memphis), who has fought for a Tennessee lottery since 1984, says, "There's nothing that says religion is anti-lottery, and to have a religious person being for the lottery is not anti-Bible." And even Gilstrap admits that up to 80 percent of Roman Catholics in Tennessee favor a state lottery. Members of many other denominations most likely fall into the 60-plus percent that polls show in favor of the lottery. That leaves the heavy lifting up to the fundamentalists.
Cohen charges that out-of-state gambling interests, who rely on Tennesseans to drop money at their casinos in Mississippi, Illinois, and elsewhere, are working with the religious right to defeat the lottery. "The fundamentalist religions are against gambling, and they're in bed with people from out of state who want Tennesseans to continue spending money there. This is an unholy alliance. We know it, and they're in denial," Cohen says. "We've had it for years -- bootleggers and preachers in dry counties ... the dog-race promoters in West Memphis. So there's been a long, sordid tradition."
Out-of-state casinos are not in the picture at all, says Bobbie Patray of the conservative Eagle Forum and a sometime debating partner of Cohen's. Rather than an unholy alliance, she says it's "more like two trains running on parallel tracks heading for the same destination." Patray says the "Tunica folks" are not involved with the Gambling Free Tennessee Alliance.
Indeed, the organization decided against accepting money from out-of-state interests, Gilstrap says. But an unexpected statewide race for the U.S. Senate seat Fred Thompson is vacating and the resulting fallout of contested congressional races are drying up the pool of money each side was expecting for their campaigns.
Now, it's mainly a matter of education regarding the benefits -- or the ills -- of a state lottery. And you know where that's going to happen? In church. So take a good look around the next time you go to church. Talk about the lottery, tell your fellow congregants how you feel, and listen to what they have to say. Who knows? Maybe we'll all learn something.
Phil West, now a free-lance writer and political columnist, was, for many years, the Capitol Hill correspondent for the Associated Press in Nashville.