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Is the Real Sin Outlawing Life's Harmless Gambols? You Bet

Conservatives are glimpsing the virtues of privacy in Bennett's case.

May 08, 2003|Norah Vincent | Norah Vincent is a columnist in Yardley, Pa.

Isn't it curious how quickly a conservative becomes a libertarian when he's caught sinning? There's a lesson in that somewhere, if only the Christian right could bring itself to learn it.

Maybe it will, now that its paragon of virtue, William Bennett, has been exposed as an inveterate high-stakes gambler. They're already piping in with a textbook privacy defense. National Review's Jonah Goldberg carped, "The only conceivable victims here are the Bennett family, and a little bird tells me that they'll do just fine." Bennett himself growled: "I don't play the 'milk money.' I don't put my family at risk."

In other words, I'm not harming anyone, so leave me alone. A fair argument if you're a libertarian, for whom harmless acts are defensibly private. Libertarians believe that the government should stay out of private lives on issues that don't have a bearing on society as a whole.

The problem is that Bennett and Goldberg are not libertarians. They're hellfire conservatives, and hellfire conservatives tend not to believe that a generalized right to privacy exists in the Constitution, much less that harmless acts are protected by it. For far-right conservatives to defend Bennett's gambling in libertarian terms as a "harmless act" -- one that doesn't starve the wife and kids -- is disingenuous to say the least because it sidesteps the most important criterion by which such a conservative defines harm. That is, of course, sin.

Before the far right can talk about whether something is harmful, it must first establish whether it is sinful because, for these conservatives, all sinful acts are by definition harmful, not just to the sinner or his intimates but to society at large.

This is the justification for upholding sodomy laws. Gay sex, though it may be harmless by libertarian standards, by conservative standards is a sin. Thus, by definition it harms society and the family and should not be a protected private act.

So conservatives shouldn't be arguing that gambling is harmless but rather that gambling isn't a sin. But, arguably, it is a sin, and a deadly one at that. In fact, it's hard to imagine a better example of greed -- one of the seven deadly sins -- than the world of high-stakes gambling.

Gambling is the very embodiment of greed. Greed is its raison d'etre. There can be no doubt where the Christian right stands on the issue. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson has written, "We must reject the fantasy that wagering is innocuous entertainment and deal earnestly with the destruction and pain that it causes to individuals, families and society." And Ralph Reed has pronounced gambling a "cancer on the body politic, destroying families, stealing food from the mouths of children, turning wives into widows."

So if gambling is a sin, harmful to society and the family, then according to conservative logic, whether it is privately undertaken is irrelevant. It should be as illegal as sodomy still is in more than a dozen states. In all fairness, then, shouldn't poker night at Bill Bennett's be just as prosecutable as a quiet tryst at Big Gay Al's? You would think. But, as this incident clearly shows, the far right doesn't see it this way.

They persist in selectively applying their standard of sin to the law, attempting to criminalize only certain sins; other people's sins; sins that push their buttons; sins like sodomy and pot smoking that -- as any member of Gamblers Anonymous will tell you -- do far, far less damage to society or the family than gambling.

Which is why the lesson in all this is not simply that the Christian right is full of hypocrites who pick and choose which sins to de-privatize and prosecute. It's also -- as Bennett has just learned -- that the libertarian harm principle is a far more consistent and equitable standard for criminalizing private acts than the selectively enforced Christian "sin principle." Because in a world full of sinners, if you make sinning criminal, sooner or later we'll all end up in the dock.

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