Although it may get me drummed out of the corps of kneejerk, pinko, secular humanist
liberals, I find myself liking what the Mormon church did earlier this month.
A Phoenix newspaper, The Arizona Republic, reported that the church took in $4.7
billion last year an income that would put it 110th on the Fortune 500 list of top
corporate moneymakers, and no fraud involved. When asked to verify that figure, church
officials modestly declined, saying that "the church chooses not to make those records
public," and that members' contributions will continue to be managed "prayerfully and
It's the refusal to own up to prosperity that I like there. I can't help myself. It's the way I
was brought up.
I grew up in a little town in southwest Kansas where poormouthing was the civic pastime.
We only bragged about two things there: How little we paid for what we had and how
many miles to the gallon our cars got. It wasn't the efficiency of the cars we were proud
of, but our own frugal ability to get by despite the abject poverty we wanted everyone to
believe we wallowed in.
"Got 19 miles to the gallon with my '48 Pontiac on that trip to Wichita," Billy Gene
Ratilaff would tell the rest of us at the barbershop. We'd be too polite to say so, but we
knew he was lying.
"Only paid $350 for that car," he'd say, even though we all knew he paid $425, "so I
didn't expect much, maybe about 15. Got 19 though, and it was cheap gas too."
We knew he bought everything from Standard and avoided the cut-rate places, but we
didn't say anything.
Because we scorned people who were ostentatiously and openly prosperous, that didn't
mean we admired the authentically poor: Real poverty embarrassed us. Who we really
admired were people who had money - and enough sense to deny it.
My dad played the game as well as anyone, living in the same dinky little house with
seven-foot ceilings long after he'd made enough money for something better. After my
sisters and I left home and were beyond the corruption of opulence, he and my mother
moved into a $35,000 brick home, but my father was never quite at ease with the
wall-to-wall carpeting and the fireplace and the eight-foot ceilings.
Sombody might notice.
And it wasn't just human notice that we worried about. It was the notice of Higher
Powers, the kind of whimsical deities Robert Frost talks about in his two-line poem:
"Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee/And I'll forgive Thy great big one on me."
The prosperity of our town depended largely on the size of the wheat crop and the price
we got for it. That meant we were at the mercy of the Chicago Board of Trade and the
Weather God. The Board of Trade was inscrutable and omnipotent, so we knew better
than to mess with it, but the Weather God could sometimes be manipulated by our
The Truth, Mainly
Nobody said so out loud we were, after all, members of nominally Christian
institutions but we all knew the Weather God delighted in playing great big jokes on us
if we started counting our bushels before they were in the bin. The surest way to provoke
a crop-killing hailstorm the week before harvest was to announce in the barbershop that
the half section northwest of town looked like it might make 40 bushels to the acre.
We knew it was best to lie low and hope the Weather God didn't notice how good the
wheat looked. You might tell your wife at 2 a.m. it looked like 40-bushel wheat, but
you'd tell the boys in the barbershop you'd be lucky to get 15 and even that would be full
As Ernest Hemingway said in a slightly different context, if you talk about it, you lose it.
So I can't help it: I like the poker-faced, close-to-the-vest game the Mormon leaders
play when they say that they'll continue to manage their funds prayerfully and with
inspiration. They know the Money God is watching, looking for yet another high roller
who talks too loud about his winnings Donald Trump, say who can be brought down
by some celestial joke.
And having watched Jim Bakker's descent, they know that a pious big talker must be an
especially tempting target.
I suppose that's why by nature and nurture I'm so uneasy with the combination of national
piety and self-congratulation promoted by the Reagan-Bush administrations. Their notion
that we should flaunt it if we've got it seems dangerously showy to someone whose native
tongue is Poormouth. And even some Republicans in the barbershop are beginning to
suspect that "We're number one" is the kind of talk that goeth before a fall, that the God
of National Reversals of Fortune, the biggest celestial jokester of them all, may already
be taking notice, already grinning a little in anticipation of the pratfall.
Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.