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The city on the desert

Las Vegas is America, too

Issue: "Obama," Nov. 15, 2008

In 1630, the Puritan John Winthrop wrote a sermon aboard the Arabella, a ship bound for the wild coast of America. "A Model of Christian Charity" set forth his vision for the settlement his shipmates would establish in Boston: a godly community built on the prophet Micah's counsel "to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" (6:8). "We must consider that we shall be as a city on a hill," he wrote. "The eyes of all people are upon us."

Whether or not Winthrop's notion of a holy commonwealth on earth is even possible, that kind of idealism, evident from its very beginnings, is one reason why I love America. I love her charity and openness, her willingness to examine herself and correct wrongs. America is all that.

She's also Las Vegas.

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Bugsy Segal (so the story goes) had a vision too, of a city on the desert dedicated to easy profit. The story of Vegas is a crude version of America's: It grew up relatively overnight, its often-violent history peopled with legendary figures like Elvis and Howard Hughes. Its economy attracts opportunity-seekers from around the world-employees' nametags often say where they're from. It's a miniature melting pot that bills itself as a land of opportunity and acts the part. Money is everywhere: piled on gaming tables, pouring into and out of slot machines, stuffed between the fingers of cocktail waitresses.

And it's all built on vice. In every other city in the world, sin is what happens when people get together for legitimate enterprise; here, sin is what's happening. Once a watering hole for California-bound settlers, the unique potential of Las Vegas dawned when the Nevada legislature legalized gambling in the 1910s. Why not? Since people are going to gamble anyway, why let organized crime get all the profit?

The die was cast and the roulette wheel turned. Other pioneers made the desert bloom, but the pragmatists of Nevada made it pay.

The road to success led through some ugly incidents, but the Mob presence (they say) is mostly gone and the city safely pumps millions of dollars into the state economy every year. The old pink-flamingo kitsch has given way to grand, tasteful kitsch that apes the architectural wonders of the world. The building boom of the '80s and '90s was spectacular-literally, with old casinos imploding in clouds of smoke and dust to clear the way for elegant creations like the Venetian and the Bellagio, where the management pointedly displays the names of the charities it supports.

But the classy cover is easily blown. No hotel has a proper lobby-from the desk, visitors are routed through the casino, where the flashing lights and idiotic beeps look and sound exactly the same as any nickel-slot dive. Hustlers offer the business cards of countless Tiffanys and Tricias, wearing bright smiles and little else, to men walking with their wives. Even the privacy of a hotel room is no bar to telephone propositioning by condo salesmen, show-ticket pushers, call girls, and gigolos.

Beyond the Strip is a community of banks, churches, and schools-just like any other city, except for the industry that supports it. Vegas profits by promising more than it can deliver. The Puritan notion of a City on a Hill appeals to man's highest earthly calling-to fear God, love his family, and find satisfaction in his work. The City on the Desert panders to his lowest instincts. It's the dark side of the American vision: liberty, enterprise, and the pursuit of happiness run amok.

Laudable Christian attempts to "take back the culture" should at least acknowledge that this is our culture, too-a lust and greed present from the beginning, but more recently set free from Puritan restraint to work its leaven into our entertainment, our politics, and our laws. In its own way, Las Vegas is as American as apple pie-with the snake thrown in.

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to jcheaney@worldmag.com.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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