Coalition needs to give gambling money back

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 6, 2005

When I was six or seven, my mother taught me a valuable lesson that it seems the Alabama Christian Coalition still hasn’t learned: If you take something that’s not yours, you give it back.

What I took was a little plastic ball filled with bubble gum, tucked quickly in my pocket while we waited in the cashier’s line at the Dadeville Piggly Wiggly. It’s not that I didn’t think stealing it was wrong, but it just seemed, well, simpler than having to beg Mom to buy it for me.

I guess I expected Mom to assume she’d paid for it, because I pulled it out of my pocket as soon as we’d come in the kitchen door.

“Where did you get that?” she asked.

“Um…um…”I said. The linoleum floor had suddenly become a fascinating thing to look at.

Mom didn’t get angry. We just got right back in the car and we drove right back to the Piggly Wiggly, where I handed it back over to the manager and apologized. And aside from quick smack of the behind when I got home, that was it.

The moral: Don’t take things that aren’t yours. But if you do, you can still set things right. Just give it back, and say you’re sorry, and everything will be OK.

It’s a lesson I’m sure John Giles and the rest of the boys down at the Christian Coalition learned themselves once upon a time. But now someone’s turned out their pockets and found a package of gambling-money bubble gum that shouldn’t be there, and to look at their reaction, it appears it’s a lesson the Coalition has forgotten long ago.

The story, if you haven’t heard it: a while back, the organization Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) gave the Coalition $850,000 to fight gambling in Alabama. Last month the ATR’s Grover Norquist admitted to the Boston Globe that the $850,000 had come from a Mississippi Indian tribe seeking to protect its casino interests. The Coalition is, of course, the state’s most visible opponent of gambling and its policies expressly forbid accepting gambling donations. Oops.

Giles has repeatedly denied, however, that the Coalition had any idea the money was connected to gambling interests. Editorialists statewide have scoffed at the Coalition’s claims, and I too have some trouble believing the Coalition never once got around to sitting down with Norquist for coffee and asking, “So, uh, you guys find this $850,000 under your doorstep or what?”

But I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, because whether the Coalition knew where the money trail led or not is almost beside the point. Maybe they did. Maybe they didn’t.

But either way, it’s still money collected from gambling. It’s the life savings of a Medicaid patient. It’s a single mother’s whole monthly paycheck. It’s money that’s come from a casino preying on thousands of middle- and lower-class workers, from Texas to the Black Belt, that can’t afford it at the same time they can’t help themselves. Put simply, it’s money that no self-respecting Christian organization should ever touch.

And whether Giles knew its sources or not, it’s money the Coalition has had its hands all over. An open letter by Giles posted to the Coalition website angrily denies a lot of accusations leveled against the Coalition, but what it doesn’t dispute is that the money is tainted by gambling. (It also, in true Allegedly Christian Coalition fashion, makes zero references to Jesus Christ, scripture, or even Christianity itself.)

If there’s no debate as to where the $850,000 came from, it’s time to start debating where it should be going. It’s money the Coalition never should have taken. It shouldn’t belong to them.

So, like the bubble gum stowed away in my pocket, it needs to be given back. Back to the people of Alabama who tossed it away in Mississippi, back to the people the Coalition claims to care so much about.

The Coalition says it wants better education. Great! $850,000 could go a long way towards keeping more than two-thirds of Sumter County’s high school students in school long enough to graduate, don’t you think? The Coalition says it wants strong families. I hear the HERO Family Resource Center over in Greensboro could always use an extra hundred-thousand bucks or so.

The Coalition says, right there in its name, that it’s a Christian organization. So what would Christ do with $850,000 worth of gambling money? Seems to me he’d be a lot more likely to use it to feed the hungry and care for sick children and build houses for the poor than to hoard it for another round of smartly-dressed lobbyists gabbing away in the Capitol.

But judging from their stances on tax reform, education funding, constitutional reform, and other issues where they have consistently sided with the privileged and wealthy over “the least of these,” what Christ would do doesn’t matter much to the Coalition. They’re not going to tell Alabama they’re sorry. They’re not going to say “this isn’t mine.” They’re not going to give back what isn’t theirs. They can talk all they want, but they’re not interested in making things OK with the people of this state.

Is there a way we can give the Christian Coalition a mother? I think it’s time someone was driven right back to the store.