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Since the days of Alexis de Tocqueville, Americans see theirs as a religious, moral, generous nation -- a nation whose people have been looking into the mirror and making this appraisal.

Resources: Theological Papers

Habitat for Humanity

By Martin E. Marty

FEBRUARY 23, 2004

Someone once suggested that the two greatest inventions in American history are Alcoholics Anonymous and ice cream cones. As half-serious as that proposer must have been, I'd add Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI). Ordinarily we do our sighting for Sightings through print or electronic media. Now and then, however, we do some "on-location" work, as I did on March 17 at Emory University in Atlanta for a conversation with Habitat's founder and president, Millard Fuller (see www.law.emory.edu/cisr for the webcast). The event was part of the program on "The Child in Law, Religion, and Society" that I co-direct with John Witte at the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion.

On that day I first (and "at last") visited HFHI headquarters in Americus, Georgia, where the group was founded by Dr. Fuller in 1976. I say "at last" because whoever visits colleges as I do knows how compelling Habitat is to collegians, 11,000 of whom are "spring breaking" with the organization this year. Many friends who are better with hammers than I am have donated time -- son Joel is also a volunteer. Invitations from the Fullers come frequently. I recommend that you go; you will be hospitably received.

If you do go, visit the new Global Village and Discovery Center (www.habitat.org/gvdc). There you will learn the story behind the building of 160,000 homes (200,000 by 2005) in 92 nations for almost one million residents, many of them the children who are the subject of my present inquiry. This is not a commercial for Habitat, though I have never had trouble being enthusiastic.

For balance, here are some criticisms I've heard (you can't be as big and venturesome as they are without being subject to occasional criticism): they do not reach the poorest of the poor, since people chosen for a new home do pay. Recipients contribute "sweat equity" and make monthly interest-free mortgage payments. But Habitat has found a huge niche, serving the ordinarily quite poor, and helping produce simple but affordable homes and changed lives.

Habitat fits into the zone of Sightings coverage for a number of reasons. For instance, it helps remind us, and others, that to speak of "public religion" does not mean that the only topic is politics and religion. Building 160,000-plus homes is a very public act. And it is religious in specific ways, and, in this case, Christian. Yet it is bipartisan, easily crossing all political and socioeconomic lines for support. Fuller and his colleagues and volunteers have modeled how one can be motivated by a particular religious "story" to be hospitable to others. Habitat now builds in numbers of dominantly Muslim nations, has attracted Jewish support, and never asks the creed of those with whom they work, thus proving that "particular" faith and the "common good" can intersect.

Thomas Merton once sounded offensive when he called "his" Gethsemani monastery the soul of America, though America does not know it. He became inoffensive when he said there can be many such "souls." Habitat embodies and exemplifies soul, showing no interest in a monopoly of claims as it welcomes parallel organizations in the effort to see the world housed-soon.


Martin E. Marty is Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity in the Divinity School and the Committee on the History of Culture. This article is reprinted, with permission, from Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.