The pastoral letter by the Rt. Reverend Laish Boyd Sr., Anglican Bishop of the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands, on the numbers business is a welcome contribution to the dialogue on the ethical dimensions of a complex issue of public policy.
In important ways, it is an improvement on his statement on marital rape in that this letter is timelier and considerably better written. It is clearly motivated by pastoral concern for his religious community and a spirit of goodwill for the broader Bahamas.
Still, with great respect for his office and his intentions, Bishop Boyd’s pastoral letter misses the mark. It is poorly constructed on a foundation of dubious reasoning and premises leading to flawed conclusions. He has taken a complex and multidimensional moral issue and offered his moral analysis in the form of assertions that are unfortunately overblown.
He appears to have ignored the vast literature and complex history of the legalization of the numbers business in many countries, including in the Caribbean.
While it his right to so do, Bishop Boyd has taken an absolutist stance on the numbers business at variance with the ethical position of other church heads in the worldwide Anglican Communion.
On the “Numbers Business”, the Bishop emphatically states: “It is a 24-hour-a-day, 7-days-a-week enterprise in which persons engage and which is definitely habit-forming and downright addictive for a majority of its participants.”
This bold and broad claim is baseless. Whatever his moral sentiments, Bishop Boyd has an obligation to get his facts correct. That he has failed, dramatically, to so do in this instance is disappointing and surprising.
Sadly, the Bishop also ignored medical, psychological and sociological research on addiction, undermining his credibility on this issue. The skewed reasoning the Bishop employed in this instance was used by various temperance movements to prohibit the drinking of alcohol.
This same logic also surfaced in the somewhat naive and historically inaccurate statement by Bishop Boyd: “...any law can be enforced where politicians have the political will to take a stand, and to enforce it right down the chain of hierarchical command in and by way of every relevant department and agency.”
Is this not what the prohibitionists of alcohol said in the United States? Further, as most ethicists would advise Bishop Boyd, the tests of when a law can and should be enforced “right down the chain” are complex. They include issues of real enforceability and the prioritizing of resources needed to enforce certain laws.
Bishop Boyd stated that those who utilize the enforceability argument in the context of the numbers business are morally coping-out. This is unfair language bordering on the uncharitable, and uncharacteristic of this leader of the Anglican community.
It is also dismissive of reasonable moral claims that the finite resources of the state should be used for broader social and moral purposes than attempting to enforce a prohibition on the playing of numbers by citizens. And, it is at variance with the pastoral tone, style and balance he demonstrated when he was installed as Bishop.
The ethics of gambling are complex, with moral views ranging from absolute prohibition to allowing all or most forms of gambling with little or no government interference.
As stated in a previous Front Porch, the ethical issues also involve a balance between individual freedom and social harm. The Bishop’s letter ignores this moral tension with which many ethicists, theologians and sociologists have struggled for generations.
Whatever the personal opinions of Christians on gambling, blanket condemnations by church leaders on this complex issue tend to miss the mark ethically. Critically, Bishop Boyd included no references to Scripture, as Scripture is basically silent on this moral question, notwithstanding the proof texting of some fundamentalists.
Moreover, no commandment of the Decalogue speaks directly to gambling, though some of the Ten Commandments may offer moral advice relative to gambling.
In terms of the ethics of gambling, the Roman Catholic community appears to have the more considered and intellectually and morally cogent and consistent position of the Christian denominations.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagering are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others.
“The passion of gambling risks becoming an enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant.”
This reasoning enlightens the debate on gambling with an ethical framework and balance largely absent from Bishop Boyd’s letter. He offers welcome and necessary ethical reflection on the individual moral dimensions and the potential and real social costs related to the numbers business. Yet, the Anglican prelate has ignored or fudged other issues in his statement.
As the debate on the numbers business continues, Bishop Boyd will need to clarify his responses to some critical questions. Does he believe numbers playing to be intrinsically wrong or a moral evil in all circumstances?
Does he believe that casino gambling should be ended in the Bahamas because of its moral harm to those nonresidents who engage in this activity? Would his church community accept funds from a legalized numbers business to support its educational and charitable programmes?
Has he asked those who engage in the numbers business at every level to refrain from contributing the proceeds of such activity to the Anglican community? Has his church made a concentrated effort to establish programmes to address those who may have a gambling addiction, such as Gamblers Anonymous or other efforts?
Whatever his responses to these questions, Bishop Boyd may wish to remember that other people of goodwill within and beyond his church community also have positions on the numbers business that are in accord with good conscience and moral reasoning.
For example, many of them feel that issues related to gambling addiction are best dealt with through a public health model rather than prohibition, and that bringing this activity into the legal economy may be more morally wise and better public policy.
The debate on legalizing the number business in the Bahamas will continue for some time. Bishop Boyd has raised some important moral issues for consideration. Indeed a previous Front Porch reprinted in this paper a few weeks ago and available at the Bahama Pundit website highlighted a number of these issues.
Just as he has raised key moral concerns, Bishop Boyd may want to better consider and study more in-depth the moral arguments and positions of others who care as passionately as he does about the well-being and moral fabric of the Bahamas.
However one may feel about his pastoral letter, those public comments that have labelled the Bishop as hypocritical are overblown and unnecessary. The Anglican Bishop is a man of goodwill with a good and caring heart, whether or not one feels that he has missed the mark on this particular issue.
•Simon is a young Bahamian with things on his mind who wishes to remain anonymous. His column 'Front Porch' is published every Tuesday in the Nassau Guardian. He can be reached at email@example.com.