Why we shun fun, gambling

Why we shun fun, gambling

Staff WriterAugust 28, 2005 

Will The Old North State soon be known as The Old Maid State?

The legislature decided once again last week that North Carolina should be the only lottery-less state in the neighborhood -- at least for now. That is hardly surprising. North Carolina was also one of the first states to enact Prohibition and was the last state in the nation to allow martinis and other mixed drinks to be sold in restaurants.

Even among her Bible Belt sisters, North Carolina has become sort of the strait-laced old maid whose dress goes down to her ankles, which are ever so primly crossed.

North Carolina has never had the "laissez les bons temps rouler" spirit of New Orleans' Bourbon Street, or the gambling casinos of the Gulf Coast, or the dog tracks of Florida.

South Carolina has the glitzy resort of Myrtle Beach, complete with gambling cruises. Virginia has horse racing and off-track betting. Tennessee has the country slickers of Nashville and the boozy blues of Memphis' Beale Street. And North Carolina?

More sweet tea, dear?

Leo Jenkins, the late chancellor of East Carolina University, once told me that North Carolinians know how to work their buns off but are slightly suspicious of the whole idea of fun and relaxation.

North Carolina has changed a lot over the years. It now has glass office towers, major-league sports and restaurants where you can order a nice Chardonnay to go with your pistachio poached chicken paupiettes with braised green beans and green onion marmalade.

But you don't have to scratch a Tar Heel very deeply to find rural or small-town roots. The lessons inculcated by generations of Baptist and Methodist preachers stuck like tar. Some folks still hope that none of their neighbors see them coming out of the ABC store. (As someone who wanted to become a Baptist preacher before becoming a backsliding newspaperman, and who still won't take a drink in front of my mother, I understand.)

There are, of course, many reasons why the lottery failed again last week that have nothing to do with sin and salvation. There are all sorts of public policy questions about whether the lottery is the best way for the state to raise revenue.

But the backbone of the lottery opposition is from the churches, which is why the Republican Party has made lottery opposition nearly a litmus-test issue for GOP lawmakers.

So how come Bible Belt states such as Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Alabama have lotteries?

The difference is that North Carolina also has one of the strongest progressive streaks in the South -- and newspapers, think tanks, university leaders, preachers and business leaders have joined forces with the conservative churches to beat back the lottery. The same forces that are keeping the lottery out of North Carolina once kept the state dry.

Of course, there is a lot of hypocrisy involved. North Carolinians are playing the lottery in other states and on the Internet. They are playing poker, and bingo, and video poker machines and going to Atlantic City and Las Vegas.

But not in front of their oldmaid aunt.

Staff writer Rob Christensen can be reached at 829-4532 or robc@newsobserver.com.

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