All of the Salvation Army sidewalk bell-ringers in Naples, Florida put together brought in less than $100,000 during the holiday season. So it was rather dramatic when Salvation Army Major Cleo Damon turned down a single $100,000 check--because it came from the $14 million Florida lottery winnings of David L. Rush.
By contrast, the Abundant Life Church of God in Torrance, California, was all too happy to accept the gift last week of Andrew "Jack" Whittaker, who will take home $117 million from the 26-state Powerball. "If God wants to take the devil's money and give it to us, that's fine," says Pastor Gerald S. Abreu.
But Damon, the Army's top officer in the Naples area, spends a good deal of time counseling gambling addicts and felt, therefore, that "he couldn't accept the donation based on his position in the community," explained Steve Dick, spokesman for the Army's Florida division. The regional offices of the Salvation Army supported the decision, Dick said, but nonetheless are anxious that Damon's decision might discourage future donations.
The Salvation Army has no standing policy on accepting money from any source. "We look at the intent of the donor," says Dick, who points out that the Army has taken money from liquor distributors, even though the group helps alcoholics. And since the Army rarely asks questions about the source of a donor's money, Rush's donation might not have caused misgivings had it not been widely publicized. "We assume people are giving because they want to help the less fortunate," says Dick. Only when the money is clearly illegally obtained will the organization refuse it, as it did in the 1950s when mobsters tried to participate in a benefit.
The question of whether gambling dollars can be "made good" has long troubled Christians of all stripes, and does so to this day. In November, Tennessee became the 38th state to legalize a state-run lottery, with all proceeds going to university scholarships. The loudest protests against the scheme came from evangelical groups. Weekly bingo games, an honored fund-raising program for many churches, are often better attended than Sunday Services, to the chagrin of pastors.
But does accepting a gambler's winnings compromise the morals of a church-based charity? The fact that state lottery winnings are legal does not distinguish them from criminal profits, say many evangelical Christians, who heed biblical ones that they say inveigh against wagering.
Religious anti-gambling activists cite statistics more often than Scripture, claiming that legalized gambling preys on the poor, who are led further into poverty by the false hope of becoming rich. For the Naples Salvation Army, the question was one of reputation, not revelation. "We preach against gambling," the chapter's spokeswoman Maribeth Shanahan, was quoted as saying. "To accept it would be to talk out of both sides of our mouth."
But back then the Army had no such qualms. "Historically, they were willing to take money from anyone," says Diane Winston, author of " Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army." In a famous pronouncement, the Army's founder, William Booth, declared that "tainted money is washed clean."
Normally a merciless critic of organized religion, Shaw congratulated Booth on his practical position in his introduction to his play. "The notion that you can earmark certain coins as tainted," Shaw wrote, "is an unpractical individualist superstition." There is no such thing as good money, Shaw opined, since it can all be traced back to "crime, drink, prostitution, disease, and all the evil fruits of poverty." Florida's lottery winner, Rush, a financial adviser, took a similar tack. "There's no bigger gamble than investing in the stock market," he told reporters.
Christians aren't the only ones who say the national obsession with the lottery has a bad effect on our spiritual lives. In "Found Money: How to Consciously Win the Lottery," Keith Ryan uses the lottery as a tool to teach that we all have to take responsibility for our lives, depending on neither luck nor the Almighty to make our lives what we want it to be. "If you attribute your good fortune to chance," Ryan says, "you abdicate responsibility for your life." Even such an intently random operation as Powerball, Ryan claims, can be won if we create the possibility in our own minds. (Ryan claims to have won several small amounts--no more nor less than he desired.)
For the record, Gamblers Anonymous, a 12-step program for addicted gamblers, has proudly turned down thousands of dollars from the United Way, as well as from well-meaning judges who order gamblers to send the legal proceeds of ill-gotten cash to GA. Free money, the group's stance implies, is costly if it robs us of the dignity of supporting ourselves.
Both lottery winners in the news last week already enjoy that kind of dignity. Whittaker, the owner of a construction company, and Rush, a financial adviser, have seen their share of big checks. No doubt that gave them a healthy perspective on their circumstances. "I'm not lucky, I'm blessed," said Whittaker at his news conference, and he passed the blessings along. Rush, meanwhile, took the Salvation Army's "dis" with a shrug, observing, "Everybody has a right to be sanctimonious if they want to be."