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Perspective: No ‘offensive chant’ will break the centurylong bond between USC and Latter-day Saints

USC has a long history with Latter-day Saints that doesn’t involve expletives

BYU tight end Dallin Holker (32) is tackled by Southern California safety Calen Bullock (27) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Los Angeles, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.
Ashley Landis, Associated Press

A curse-laden chant from the USC student section aimed at “those Mormons” during Saturday’s BYU game can’t break the near-centurylong bond between Latter-day Saints and the University of Southern California.

In 1935, a curious invitation arrived at 47th East Temple Street in Salt Lake City from USC: come and help us teach a course “in the program of the Mormon Church as a regular subject of instruction on campus.”

John A. Widtsoe, a Latter-day Saint apostle known for his piercing intelligence (he graduated with honors from Harvard) and sturdy Norwegian accent (he was born on the island of Frøya) received the assignment. He traveled to Los Angeles with his wife Leah D. Widtsoe — an academic in her own right — for a one-year appointment teaching USC’s first course of study on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It may have been the first course of its kind outside the state of Utah.

Widtsoe, a retired university president, would later reflect on the experience in his autobiography: “Sound, prominent thinkers felt that if collegiate youth … were made acquainted with living religions in a systematic, dignified manner, placed at least on equal footing with all academic subjects, it might help advance the national welfare.”

He concluded: “The University of Southern California dared to initiate this training and has continued the work since that day.”

Nearly a century later, there’s a steadily growing list of programs and conferences across the country that focus on studying the church’s history, teachings and members, including on the very campus where it all started: the University of Southern California. In 2015, Larry Eastland, a graduate of both Brigham Young University and the University of Southern California, joined with other prominent church members and faith leaders to help initiate the John A. Widtsoe Foundation in collaboration with the University of Southern California’s Office of Religious Life.

The Widtsoe Foundation has already hosted a variety of globally minded, interfaith dialogues and symposia featuring the likes of Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Bishop Gérald Caussé of the church’s Presiding Bishopric. But, beyond the academic and interfaith spaces, thousands of Latter-day Saint students, administrators and professors have, over the years, called USC their home.

Indeed, as the Deseret News reported, USC’s own quarterback at Saturday’s game, Jaxson Dart, is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who was likewise recruited by the Cougars.

The Trojans’ defensive line coach Vic So’oto is also a member of the church and took the time to publicly apologize for the chant after the USC athletic department had done the same:

It was a classy move, and a further testament that the bonds nearly a century in the making can’t be broken in a single night.

Of course, this doesn’t mean students can’t improve or be taught a better way at places like USC, BYU, or beyond. As Widtsoe himself appreciated, “students should be trained in the fundamental principles that lead to spiritual development and worthwhile living.”

At BYU, this includes eliminating “Let’s go Brandon” chants. And, at USC, perhaps fewer expletives aimed at “those Mormons.” Or, if that’s a bridge too far, maybe start by getting our preferred name right (members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).

It will make for a more exciting chant.