The Truth, Mainly - 07/29/1991

'Poormouthing' wards off celestial jokesters
by Leon Satterfield

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 with inspiration."

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 poormouthing.

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 of weeds.

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.

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