The recent revelation that former education secretary and self-appointed "virtue czar" William Bennett has a gambling habit provoked an unusual response from the nation's Religious Right organizations: utter silence.
Most Religious Right organizations oppose state-sponsored gambling. Focus on the Family's James Dobson has called it "a destroyer that ruins lives and wrecks families." Groups like Concerned Women for America and the Southern Baptist Convention have lobbied against legalized gambling on Capitol Hill. Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, once called gambling a "cancer on the body politic, destroying families, stealing food from the mouths of children, turning wives into widows."
Many of these same organizations are also big fans of Bennett, whose book, The Book of Virtues, is popular among the Religious Right. Many have also paid Bennett to speak at their events.
When the story broke May 5 that Bennett enjoys high-stakes gambling and may have spent as much as $8 million at casinos over the years, Religious Right leaders remained silent. While a few secular conservatives defended Bennett, leaders like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Dobson had nothing to say.
At first, Bennett tried to defend his actions, arguing that he can afford to gamble and saying he never bets "the milk money." Bennett, a Roman Catholic, also argued that his church has never opposed all forms of gambling, noting that bingo is a popular fund-raiser in many Catholic parishes.
But critics noted that Bennett's organization, Empower America, has opposed legalized gambling in the past, a stance that threatened to make him look hypocritical. A few days later, Bennett folded and announced that he would gamble no more.
On the heels of that announcement, several Religious Right groups finally broke their silence and lauded Bennett. "Good for him," said Ken Connor of the Family Research Council. "It's what a man of virtue would do."
Concerned Women for America issued a statement asserting, "Taking responsibility for his example to others, he has once again demonstrated his good character."
Columnist Norah Vincent blasted the right wing for hypocrisy. In a Los Angeles Times column, Vincent noted that many on the far right would like to criminalize private behaviors like homosexuality, which makes their blind eye toward Bennett's gambling hypocritical.
"So if gambling is a sin, harmful to society and the family, then according to conservative logic, whether it is privately undertaken is irrelevant," Vincent wrote. "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."