President George Washington’s legacy as a champion of religious freedom and the acceptance of all faiths will be sustained at the George Washington University with a new institute in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences (CCAS). The university announced Jan. 27 that the John L. Loeb Jr. Foundation and the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom have donated $2.5 million to establish the Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr. Institute for Religious Freedom at GW.
Formally launching this spring, the Loeb Institute will foster dialogue on religious understanding and the separation of church and state and will serve as a center for academic collaboration in religion, peace studies, history, political science, and other programs for scholars, students, educators, and the public.
Since 2009, the New York City-based George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, which Amb. Loeb founded, has offered its own educational programs and partnered with national civic education organizations to reach tens of thousands of teachers and students in the U.S. and abroad. Those educational programs will be transferred to GW, while the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom will continue to operate the Loeb Visitors Center at the Touro Synagogue National Historic Site in Newport, Rhode Island.
“George Washington’s ringing defense of religious freedom continues to inspire our nation to this day,” said GW President Steven Knapp. “The university that bears his name is proud to become the new home of a distinguished institute dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of that legacy.”
Before the First Amendment guaranteed freedom of religion in the U.S., President Washington was an early advocate for religious minorities. His 1790 Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, penned after he and then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson visited Newport, promised that the new nation would “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” and defined freedom of belief as the “inherent natural right” of every American. In 2015, the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom co-published a collection of essays by distinguished scholars and public leaders on Washington’s Letter and its relevance today.
The Loeb Institute will focus on creating greater awareness of the nation’s historic roots of religious freedom, the separation of church and state and the continuing relevance of the American tradition of religious diversity.
Amb. Loeb, who served as the former U.S. ambassador to Denmark from 1981 to 1983 and as a delegate to the United Nations, is a businessman, philanthropist and art collector. He was a partner of the Wall Street investment banking and brokerage firm Loeb, Rhoades and Co., from 1957 to 1979.
“I can’t think of a more appropriate institution to carry on the work of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom than this university, named for our first president himself,” Amb. Loeb said. “GW’s new institute will enable the university to tell the story of how Washington’s letter helped define this nation.”
In November 2015, Amb. Loeb received the Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty Award from the American Jewish Historical Society for his work promoting religious freedom, and President George H.W. Bush lauded his accomplishments. Amb. Loeb is a descendant of Emma Lazarus, the poet whose sonnet, “The New Colossus,” is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Amb. Loeb also serves as chairman of the Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States, and he has funded doctoral fellowships on religious freedom at Harvard University.
The new Loeb Institute will be housed within the college under Dean Ben Vinson III.
“Creation of the Loeb Institute at GW is another outstanding example of the Loeb family’s major contributions to higher education. Ambassador Loeb’s gift will be transformational for students and faculty across academic disciplines as they address the pressing issues of religious diversity and freedom in contemporary society,” Dr. Vinson said.
GW will appoint an executive director to lead the Loeb Institute and its programs.