Arguing that the Supreme Court should reconsider its current jurisprudence regarding religious exemptions from certain laws, William Haun invokes a conception of religion’s role in a free society shared by James Madison and other Founding Fathers. Haun, in making this argument, contends that religious freedom is not simply a variant of the general freedom of expression, but stems from the recognition that religion is necessary for the flourishing of liberal democracy:
As our founders recognized, diluting religious exercise poses a problem for political liberalism; self-government presupposes certain moral virtues that religion cultivates and liberalism does not. In a culture that does not appreciate a distinct contribution from religious exercise, engagement with religion, both personally and in public life, will erode—along with the corresponding cultivation of religious exercise’s personal and public goods.
[R]eligious liberty’s place in American society’s common good . . . is not superseded by liberal values. Rather, religious liberty is a prerequisite to, and sustainer of, self-government. Duties to the “Universal Sovereign,” to use James Madison’s term, are prior to—and take precedence over—duties to the political sovereign. Ensuring space for the fulfilment of religious obligations provides an enduring limit on state power. [With the benefit of religion], a culture is inherently oriented toward the recognition of transcendent, eternal truths, which are the basis for religious duties.
As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, this makes religious exercise (unlike individual autonomy or some other theoretical liberal value) uniquely disposed to turn citizens away from the vice that, as our founders recognized, free political institutions can, at best, mitigate: the ambition, empowered by unrestrained, theorized ideals, to bulldoze any institutions or practices that stand in the way of utopian goals or base desires.
[Madison’s] Memorial and Remonstrance . . . argues that freeing religious exercise from political control will allow religion to “flourish”—not simply be tolerated. Madison would subsequently make this point explicit in an 1819 letter to Robert Walsh. There, he celebrated the enhanced “number, . . . industry, and . . . morality of the priesthood and the devotion of the people” that followed from Virginia’s disestablishing its official church and “putting all sects at full liberty and on a perfect level.”