Reading Jerome P. Baggett’s book is both fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating because he tells the provocative story of a successful faith-based charity with the discerning ability of a careful researcher. Frustrating because he does so little to support his primary thesis: that religious charities like Habitat for Humanity can mobilize widespread civic activity and instill democratic values. He also clouds an otherwise clear picture of Habitat’s contributions as a faith-based charity with dubious theories of social justice.
There are really two books here. There is Baggett’s dissertation, which is nicely organized and well written. Grafted into that book is another, later work, which is overdone, confusing, contradictory, and, at times, just plain indecipherable. The later Baggett seems to have become a cynical anti-capitalist.
Still, there is quite a lot that’s worth reading. One example is the brief section, “A Religious Critique of the State and Market,” an excellent primer on the pitfalls of government funding that every nonprofit board member and executive (religious or secular) should read.
The Habitat story has been told many times, most often and most glowingly by its founder, Millard Fuller, but Baggett does a great job of peeling the onion.
Through extensive interviews with staff and volunteers, Baggett delves deeply into the culture of the organization and its ministry, carefully describing the special fervor the Habitat experience evokes among volunteers and new homeowners. He also thoroughly examines the organizational dynamics of Habitat’s international headquarters and the domestic and foreign affiliates it supports.
But Baggett falters when he tries to divine a general theory of the role of religious nonprofits in driving social change. He does not understand the culture of capitalism and fails to see that only in a society open to innovation can there be any kind of substantial charitable activity—religious or secular. He also wants more government involvement, not less, to curb the gross social inequities he attributes to the market system.
Finally, Baggett seems to lack historical perspective. Since colonial times, much that is good and beneficial in America has been achieved by individuals and organizations inspired by religious faith. Their tactics have changed with the times, but the essential qualities of organized churches and what are now called “faith-based organizations” have not changed all that much. The unique characteristics of American society allow them to succeed or fail, just like any other privately established endeavor.
Baggett thinks otherwise. He sees modern “paradenominational” organizations and the voluntary “sector” as a brave new world for the expression and fulfillment of social justice and argues that such entities embody a new and unique social form of religion that is singularly adapted to the modern world.
Faith-based charitable efforts are a vibrant form of voluntarism today, but are they really replacing churches and other formal institutions of worship? More likely, they complement traditional religious beliefs and institutions by providing believers with new ways to express their faiths.
Baggett’s work is timely and germane to current debates about faith-based charities, their relationship to government, and their efficacy as social service providers. Despite his philosophical lapses, Baggett does a credible job of showing how Habitat for Humanity allows many people to satisfy their personal commitments to faith and their fellow man in highly effective ways.
Carl Helstrom is associate executive director of the JM Foundation.