Three months before his assassination in 1844, Joseph Smith gave a speech that is referred to today as the King Follett discourse (named after an Elder Follett). In that speech, Smith laid out the idea that God was once a man and that all human beings have the potential to become gods and goddesses themselves. As someone with Buddhist tendencies, I actually quite like this idea of understanding the divine at the human level, because it makes the divine accessible. It would be great if Smith’s speech were coupled with the gnostic gospels of early Christianity that also point to human divinity, but this would probably require Mormonism to consider women as capable of being prophets as they were in the gnostic period. (See, for example, Mary 9:2-4, where Peter gets pretty annoyed at the idea of Jesus confiding in her things that he didn’t tell his male apostles.)
Anyway, my understanding is that the King Follett discourse was indispensable to Mormon identity for several decades, but was used by evangelicals to point to “how crazy those Mormons are” because “they actually believe they can become gods.” Thus, the Church toned down its use of the doctrine by also suggesting to the membership that it’s not really important to think about potential divinity at this moment — since most of us have a long way to go. Armaud Mauss suggests that this will continue to be the case as the Church moves more into an assimilative period, as the teaching of human divinity is “traditional,” but not “essential.” A question I have, though, is whether Mauss is assuming that Mormons are assimilating to only Christianity in America, or if they are trying to make sense of themselves on a global stage (Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews) — in which case, why not maintain the King Follett discourse?
Also, in terms of the “essentialness” of the discourse to Mormon identity, is it not the case that the Church’s gender roles and stance against same-sex marriage are directly related to the notion of men being imaged like Heavenly Father and women being imaged like [a barely mentioned] Heavenly Mother, a divine procreation of deities Whom we will someday emulate as gods ourselves? I don’t exactly see how the Church can downplay its doctrine of potential godhood without also downplaying its justifications for no female ordination or same-sex marriage.