Religious conservatives were in a bind. On one hand, they love William Bennett. The Book of Virtues is standard reading for most conservative Christians, particularly in Christian schools. The book is sold on Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network site, among others.

On the other hand, most of them view gambling as a serious problem.

So after revelations that Bennett has a multi-million gambling habit, the question arose: what would we hear from religious conservatives?

The answer: silence. No Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on television jumping to his defense. No Gary Bauer or James Dobson criticizing him. A few less-famous Christian figures expressed dismay, such as Joe Glover of the Family Policy Network, who called Bennett's gambling "disturbing" in an interview with Beliefnet. But until Bennett admitted he had a problem late Monday afternoon, no major Christian figure was willing to comment.

"The fact that we're hearing nothing may suggest that this is a difficult issue to deal with and they don't know which way to go," says John Green, an expert on conservative Christians and politics at the University of Akron. "It may be because of the role Bennett plays. He's an intellectual, and he's respected inside and outside conservative Christian circles."

Green said it's likely in the end that conservative Christians will say, "Nobody's perfect and we want to help Brother Bennett with his problems." But the controversy could also end up reducing his influence among conservative Christians-and could even cause some of them to rethink their own commitments.

One conservative Christian leader said privately he'd witnessed a couple of teenage girls crying over the issue on Sunday at church, where Bennett's gambling was the hot topic at the post-worship lunch.

"Some of the grassroots people may not be as active politically because one of their leaders has frailties," Green said. "Bennett plays this strong role as an advocate of traditional values."

One reason conservative Christians are so dismayed by the revelations is that--unlike neo-conservatives such as William Kristol--they have strong stances against gambling.

Focus on the Family head James Dobson, a member of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, in 1999 called gambling "a destroyer that ruins lives and wrecks families."

Gary Bauer, chairman of the Campaign for Working Families and a former Republican presidential candidate, said in 2001: "It should offend every pro-family American that casinos take scarce dollars out of a family's budget by ensnaring people in an addictive trap."

Concerned Women for America urges its constituents to lobby legislators against gambling. The Southern Baptist Convention has an entire area devoted to anti-gambling material.

"Jesus Christ spoke more of the importance of allocating your resources in such a way that is frugal and honoring God than he did on heaven and hell," said Family Policy Network's Glover. "I wonder how many people who struggle to raise money to send to orphans overseas-I wonder how many of them felt sick to their stomachs knowing that the money he gambled could have literally saved lives? You may find interfaith struggles over whether people who buy a lottery ticket are wasting money, but we're talking about a half-million dollars in a weekend.

"This is not virtuous," Glover said.

At the same time, Glover said, he views Bennett's gambling as a "warning" to every person who tries to live virtuously. "No one is safe," he said. "We are all capable of being blind to errors in judgment. What William Bennett really needs now is close friends to help him see just how serious this really is."

Late Monday, Bennett seemed to come around, saying "I have done too much gambling, and this is not an example I wish to set..Therefore, my gambling days are over."

Soon after, Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship Ministries issued a statement saying: "Bill Bennett has acknowledged his failure to set a right example and he has stated he will address the problem. Now let us put this issue to rest."

Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council, on Monday called Bennett's vice "disappointing" and "troubling"-but was inclined to forgive him once he declared himself finished with gambling. "Good for Mr. Bennett," Connor said. "It's what a man of virtue would do."

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