Even more than its Bible Belt neighbors, Alabama has steadfastly resisted legalizing gambling for generations.
The clout of evangelical Christians helped make sure of it: Joe Godfrey, the top lobbyist for the state’s most powerful churches, once received an Inauguration Day promise from an influential politician that no proposal for gambling would make it through the State House while he was in office.
But the resistance is now openly fraying, suggesting that gambling is no longer a potent moral issue that animates voters and politicians the way it once did.
As the landscape shifts in Montgomery, the state capital, the consequences may reverberate across the South, where nearby states gladly rake in billions of dollars that Alabamians are not allowed to wager at home.
The Supreme Court opened a new front last month when it cleared the way for sports betting in any state that wanted it, a ruling that neighboring Mississippi swiftly moved to embrace. And on Tuesday, Alabama voters in both major parties nominated candidates for governor who favor a vote on creating a state lottery.
“I dread going back into session, if I’m re-elected, knowing that there’s probably going to be fantasy sports, there’s going to be the lottery, there’s going to be sports gambling, the Vegas-type gambling,” said state Rep. Rich Wingo, a Republican who opposes all those things. “I just feel like we’re going to be inundated with this gambling issue.”
Hardly anyone, Wingo included, believes that Alabama, which allows bingo, bets on horse and dog racing and a few tribal casinos with no table games, will quickly embrace other ways to wager. But the races this year for governor and for every seat in the Legislature are already accelerating debate about some of them, testing the political strength of the evangelical Christians who have blocked proposals in the past.
“I think there’s been a change in attitude, a slight change in attitude, maybe an unwitting change in attitude,” said Don Siegelman, a Democratic former governor who proposed a state lottery, only to have voters soundly reject it in 1999. “I don’t think the evangelicals would organize and execute a plan to defeat sports betting with the same passion and enthusiasm that they mustered in 1999.”
Republican Party consultants say their polling now shows overwhelming support for a vote on a lottery, even among self-identified churchgoers. In recent interviews, elected officials, pastors, political strategists and voters all said they sensed far less ferocity around an issue that once electrified Alabama politics.
In the years after Siegelman’s plan failed, there were crackdowns on the state’s electronic bingo halls; accusations of corruption, only a few of which were proven, including some against Siegelman; and an uproar when an influential Republican lawmaker floated the idea of legalizing some gambling instead of raising taxes.
Less than two years ago, a Republican governor who had been a Baptist deacon proposed a referendum on setting up a lottery, and even called a special session of the Legislature, but the effort stalled. Now, both the Republican governor, Kay Ivey, and her Democratic rival, Walt Maddox, say the state should hold a vote.
Still, there are limits: At least for now, the home of the storied Iron Bowl college football rivalry — the state all but freezes each year for the duel between Alabama and Auburn — seems far more likely to start a lottery than legalize sports betting.
No single theory has won out to explain why Alabama’s anti-gambling fervor may have ebbed.
Some see a creeping secularization in what has long been one of America’s most churchgoing states, or wonder whether voters and elected officials alike have simply grown exhausted by the issue. Others see rising voter frustration over how Alabamians wind up padding the budgets of other states when they cross borders to buy Powerball tickets or play blackjack.
And there is the reality that plenty of people who stay in Alabama are placing bets already. Illegal, untaxed gambling is thought to be widespread, and the state’s three tribal casinos, limited as they are in what they can offer, attract patrons from all over Alabama. A local minister was known to drive Harper Lee, the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” to one of them before she died in 2016.
Godfrey, the church lobbyist and executive director of the interdenominational Alabama Citizens Action Program, said the coalition against legalized gambling had fractured.
“It used to be that we could count on the Republicans and the business community to fight, but we’ve lost the Republicans, we’ve lost the business community,” Godfrey said at the group’s offices in Birmingham. “The churches will be the last line of defense — that’s the only firewall left.”
He recalled how in 1999, after Georgia had started a lottery and casinos had opened in Mississippi, the Baptist church he pastored took $5,000 out of its missions budget to use in thwarting Siegelman’s lottery plan.
But opposition to gambling has dwindled as a priority for many Christian leaders across the country, and the confidence and vigor that Godfrey once saw has been replaced with worries about whether many Christians remain willing to fight the issue.
“The biggest priority right now for me is reminding evangelicals of why we are opposed to gambling, which means teaching a biblical view of economic stewardship and a biblical view of concern for the poor,” said Russell Moore, who leads the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm and is a native of the casino-dotted Mississippi coast. “I’m not concerned that evangelicals are changing their position on gambling, as much as I’m concerned that there’s often a kind of fatalism that assumes that gambling is going to be part of every economy.”
Even so, some Christians and their leaders said they were comfortable with de-emphasizing gambling as an issue. The Rev. Neil Reynolds, the senior minister at the University Church of Christ in Tuscaloosa, said gambling, like alcohol, was not “an evil that’s going to ruin our community.”
“We are too often known for the things that we’re against, instead of the things we’re for and who we are,” Reynolds said in his office near the stadium of a Crimson Tide football program that many an Alabamian would bet on legally if they could. (Even Wayne Flynt, a Baptist minister and a professor emeritus of history at Auburn University, said the one bet he had made in his life had been a friendly $1 wager on Alabama.)
With so much money potentially at stake both for Alabama and for its neighbors, there is plentiful speculation about how much resistance may remain to gambling in the state. Flynt said he thought there would still be plenty, simply because many people are used to thinking of gambling as something done in “godless Yankee places that vote for Hillary Clinton.”
Gambling proponents recognize the cultural headwinds and, like Maddox, are framing their plans as vital to the state’s economic future.
“I think that evangelical Christians of all denominations, many of whom used to be opposed to the lottery, see that if the money is spent on our children, for our children’s education or for some other important public purpose that it’s OK,” Siegelman said, reviving some of his 1999 pitch. “It’s like a donation to the church, or a donation to education, or a donation to veterans.”
Godfrey said that he and his allies sensed the danger and expected to face a well-financed and well-crafted strategy to promote what they saw as an unmitigated vice.
“Jesus never told us it would be easy,” he said.