Few religious leaders on earth have as much power and authority as the "prophet, seer and revelator" who leads the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But this life, on this world, is just the beginning. Consider this glimpse into eternity, drawn from a funeral eulogy for President Spencer W. Kimball in 1985.
"In the Colorado Rockies, I asked President Kimball a searching question," recalled Barbara B. Smith, the 10th general president of the church's Relief Society. "'When you create a world of your own, what will you have in it?' He looked around at those mountains for a few minutes before he answered and then he said, 'I'll have everything just like this world because I love this world and everything in it.' "
After all, added Smith: "What is our greatest potential? Is it not to achieve godhood ourselves?"
This is the question that will not die when Mormons face the leaders of traditional Christian groups to discuss that blunt question: "Are Mormons Christians?"
A fussy feud over doctrinal details? Ask Mitt Romney about that.
This concept of devout Mormons achieving godhood and creating worlds "is not an idea that would be foreign to Mormons today, but it is also not a concept we hear a lot about," said religion professor Robert Millet of Brigham Young University, a veteran of many interfaith dialogues.
Still, it's clear that this belief — called "exaltation" — is something that remains "conceivable to Mormons, while it is absolutely inconceivable to traditional Christians." But for modern Mormons, he stressed, there is little or no difference between talking about "exaltation" and talking about salvation and "eternal life."
When it comes to the very nature of God, Mormons have radically different beliefs than traditional Christians. For starters, Mormons reject Trinitarian Christianity and believe that the Father God of this world is a former man who, like Jesus, has a physical, perfected body. This Heavenly Father is married to a Heavenly Mother, creating a celestial family that is the cornerstone of Mormon teachings about family and eternity.
Most debates about these topic begin with a 1844 sermon by Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, in which he stated: "God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted Man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens. That is the great secret. I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity, I will refute that idea."
Note that if Mormons can achieve godhood and create new worlds, this implies there are other gods ruling their own worlds. For the many critics of Mormonism, this mystery can be captured in one word — "polytheism."
"I think 'polytheism' is used … to describe the multiple gods of, say, the Greeks and the Romans," Boyd K. Packer, now acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, told me in a 1986 interview. "We are talking about something entirely different, and that word conjures up ideas that are not accurate.
"I suppose that technically, it means 'many gods.' Technically, the word is all right. … It carries a lot of baggage."
These issues loomed overhead as Romney delivered his recent "Faith in America" address. Thus, he risked this profession: "What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history."
Romney was in a tough spot, said Millet, who attended the speech. It was a classic "danged if you do and danged if you don't" situation as the candidate affirmed his heritage while reaching out to the conservative Protestants and Catholics who are so crucial in Republican races today.
It's crucial to understand, said Millet, that Mormons are determined to retain their unique beliefs, while striving to clarify the differences between the actual "doctrines of the church and what you might call a kind of Mormon folklore."
The results will pacify few hostile outsiders. But the trend is clear.
"Throughout the church," he said, "our faith is much more Christocentric — more centered on the redemptive work of Jesus Christ — than the Mormonism that I knew as a boy in the 1950s. That has affected everything that we say and do."