God And Our Urban Blues: Why Blue Can’t Save Our Inner Cities Part II
Published on: July 22, 2011
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  • Toni

    Government is a blunt instrument. It cannot adapt itself to idiosyncratic individuals. It can send you a check if you meet criteria A, B and C. It can’t counsel a person on the ways of personal responsibility and self-respect.

    I was a volunteer counselor at a homeless shelter. (All three shelter organizations here in Houston are explicitly Christian.) My two co-counselors and I were relieved when we were assigned a 30-something white woman. We thought her problems would be easier to solve than the single black woman with three children who arrived at about the same time.

    We were 100% wrong. Patty strung us along, telling us what she thought we wanted to hear, but all along believing that she shouldn’t have to work and take care of herself. That was the government’s job. Meanwhile, the black woman had a stake in the future (her children) and was thrilled to be getting their lives on a solid footing.

    Church members can minister to a lost soul individually. Government can’t.

  • Imsomniac

    “A young woman who finishes high school and marries before having children is much less likely to be poor than one who drops out and has a child out of wedlock.” But she deprives herself of the full benefits of the extended female kinship network!

    “Government cannot do much under our system to teach boys what being a man really means.” Aren’t we forgetting http://www.fatherhood.gov?

  • Mrs. Davis

    Good luck avoiding the race thing in the comments given how much you discuss it in your essay.

    I also hope you’ll address this. And the this. The country has abandoned its religion and religion has abandoned the country. It’s worked well for neither.

  • Pete Dellas

    The problem is that government policies effectively remove the negative financial aspects of having a baby without the benefit of a committed father. That is demonstrably true by the statistics pre- and post- “war on poverty.” And though attitudes about divorce and single motherhood have changed in society over the years, it is disproportionate in the cities.

    One other point, I believe a revival and personal faith (being born again) can do a lot to help the poor cleanse their lives of habits and behaviors that keep them self-oppressed. But when government policies have the above effect on many people, reliance on government money becomes integrated into that faith and becomes (often wrongly) associated with “God’s blessing.”

    People must get to a point of aspiring toward economic self-sufficiency before they can ever hope to improve their lot in life. As long as you rely on the “kindness of strangers” to live, you will always be held captive.

    PS. As always, I enjoyed your insights!

  • For Leftists the destruction of family and community is not a bug of the blue model but a feature. Their entire “business model” is to develop a dependent clientele that must vote for them or starve. The best way to do that is to atomize individuals and convince them they are helpless and alone. They don’t actually care for poor people, they ranch them like cattle for political power.

    All Leftwing solutions are just pretext for power and money for elite leftists. The last thing they want to do is seriously reduce urban poverty, crime and hopelessness. They just want it cultivate it to a sweet spot in which it is bad enough they can milk it for power but not bad enough that they the people finally rebel in desperation.

    They will fight to the death to prevent any influences, religious or otherwise, that “threaten” to make poor people confident, capable, proficient and independent.

  • Scott M

    Can someone please explain to me this journalistic predication to alternate between black and African American within the same piece? Maybe you can also explain to me the reason Black is capitalized but “whites” is not? Why is “black” then not capitalized later in the piece?

    Does anyone really expect to solve real race problems in this country when we can’t even figure out how to write about it with any consistency?

  • jeremy morris

    I agree with half of the thrust of this – the part about government being unable to solve these seemingly intractable problems. My issue with the essay is that I don’t see any evidence from history either here or anywhere in the world that shows religion can solve them either. To the extent that religion provides an individual the moral backbone to improve their life, they’ll typically use it to escape the urban ghetto. Those left behind do not benefit and the cycle continues.

    The only way to improve things that I can imagine is to somehow break up the lumpenproletariat itself. In other words create (promote/support) an economic environment that is conducive to business activity occurring into the urban core (think creative types returning to inner-city Detroit, or Harlem, or Washington DC and generating business opportunities to provide for them).

    This process was gathering a head of steam on the 2000’s but has come to a grinding halt since the recession/residential property crash hit.

    Inevitably it all comes back to economic growth. Create enough wealth, and the conditions for it to be created in inner-cities and all boats will rise. That’s why I vote Republican. Not for any of the social conservatism crap but because I believe low taxes and small government genuinely help society – all of it.

  • Francie

    While attitudes have changed about divorce and single motherhood, society is suffering.

  • Marion R.

    It is important not to romanticize the rural life migrants leave behind. Many of the urban dysfunctions described in this article are expressions of phenomena found in rural environments where they are either functional, neutral, less dysfunctional, or expressed their dysfunction differently.

  • “….we are Americans and one thing that unites us through time and across racial and class lines is a tendency to see every question in racial terms.”

    Speak for yourself.

    But I digress.

    After reading this essay it seems to me that the single most important thing the government could do to improve life in the inner city (and leaving aside for a moment Mr. Dellas’ quite correct point about how gov’t transfer payments are destructive to family structure) would be to completely voucherize public education.

    The school is where children between the ages of 5 or 6 through 18 or 19 spend most of their time. In the past traditional values were transmitted by American Public Schools. In the past 40 or 50 years they have instead been used to transmit either radical anti-American anti-traditional values or, possibly worse, no values at all.

    Let the money follow the child.

    Provide accreditation just as is done at the college level for both religious and secular institutions. Rid us, by the grace of Providence, of the Teachers’ Unions, the $100,000.00 per year custodians, the layers and layers of administrators, the millions squandered in corrupt contract bidding.

    Let’s give that plan an equal 5 decades to succeed that we’ve given the current failed one.

    I aver the results cannot be worse.

  • aynonymous rand

    What is this “service to community” you speak of?

  • Ann

    “these are the kinds of evils Jesus spoke of when he told his disciples that some evils are only cast out by fasting and prayer.”

    You are lying.
    The context of the text used regarded a boy who was (deaf/mute) and acting in self-destructive ways, throwing himself into water and fire.
    Don’t twist scripture to make your points, use an appropriate verse, or another resource to substantiate your views.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      Sorry you object to my use of scripture; is “lying” the word you always use to mean “mistaken”?

  • The secular nature of our government necessarily limits its ability to do “soul care.” When government steps into roles that churches traditionally play — when, for example “grief counselors” work with schools in the aftermath of a tragic shooting — all the religion has to be carefully and thoroughly purged.

    It isn’t just religion that is purged, Government has tilted from “value neutral” to “value averse.” Intentionally or not, this undermines the formation of values in the population served.

    In a strong and healthy community, this teaching comes from parents and youth leaders and it is reinforced by role models, strong institutions and clear examples on every side that playing the game “right” pays off reasonably well. In a broken, deracinated third-generation lumpen community, these systems decay from decade to decade.

    There is very little, in the US at least, that government can do to change that.

    Actually, there is one thing that government can do that would be enormously beneficial, and it requires no extra funding.

    Simply have 90% of every education dollar follow the child, make all urban schools independent, and allow for rapid creation of new urban schools.

    This necessitates drastically reducing the size and scope of urban school districts (dismantle them), while re-allocating resources to a TRUE “neighborhood school.”

    Here is why this would be explosively beneficial.

    First, the “teachers and youth leaders” would instantly form effective social networks with newly empowered parents. These networks would revolve around newly independent (and therefore more dynamic) local institutions (the schools).

    This would reverse the destruction caused by the massive social entropy plaguing America’s urban centers.

    First, government centralization destroyed the old “neighborhood school,” model, and replaced with increasingly ineffective and expensive “government schools” run centrally.

    With each successive failure, these school gain more funding for bureaucrats, but continue to fail in higher numbers. In the meantime, the output of these schools need ever-increasing amounts of programs to feed, manage, or imprison them.

    Fully funded school choice would very quickly and effectively reverse this cycle of social entropy.

    In closing, individualizing the welfare state (vouchers, HSAs, Retirement accounts) are imperfect. They are so much more effective than any alternative, however, that arguing against them intellectually unsound.

  • Yahzooman

    Thanks for another provocative essay.

    You write:
    “The faith that works in lumpenproletarianized urban areas, not just in the United States but all over the world, is hot religion: above all, Pentecostalism, but also the hotter forms of Islam.”

    Radical Islam has, indeed, found a home in the inner cities. Mainstream Christianity, of course, also has tremendous power in Black areas.

    The difference between the positive impact of Christ and the negative impact from Mohammed is this:

    In Christianity, God died as a martyr to save us.

    In Islam, God asks us to die as martyrs for him.

    That basic difference is the problem with radical, hot Islam everywhere.

  • WigWag

    “Rick Warren once said to me on a visit to Rwanda that if the only way to end poverty in Africa was to employ hundreds of thousands of college trained bureaucrats and experts at six figure salaries — then poverty in Africa would never end.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    I’m not sure what Professor Mead thinks his discussion with Rick Warren is supposed to prove; Warren’s comment is little more than a non-sequitur; there have never been hundreds of thousands of college educated bureaucrats earning six figure salaries trying to save Africa. In fact, there have never been tens of thousands or even thousands. What there has been is underpaid and overworked employees of international NGOs, Peace Corp workers who are essentially volunteers and religious missionaries who don’t get paid much if anything either.

    Using the standards that Professor Mead chooses to apply to everything else, we would have to blame the failure of Africa to catch up with the newly emerging nations in Asia and South America on the people who have actually been working there. That would be the aid workers, the volunteers and the missionaries. If we followed the logic that Professor Mead frequently utilizes, we would have no choice but to conclude that the time has finally come to try the one thing we haven’t actually tried yet; bringing in legions of highly paid bureaucrats.

    While I highly respect Professor Mead, it is disconcerting to find him so unwilling to critically analyze his own ideas. Before we conclude that the only solution to the problems of the American lumpenproliteriat is a healthy dose of that old-time religion, perhaps Professor Mead can explain how the overwhelmingly secular societies in Europe and the relatively secular society of Canada have managed to avoid the worst problems plaguing the American inner city. Certainly these societies have difficult urban problems and Muslim immigration has exacerbated these difficulties especially in European cities. But the inner cities of the United States face far more severe problems than the inner cities of Europe and Canada (or the suburbs of Paris), yet if anything, religious observance is much more common in American urban areas than in Europe or Canada. Unless Professor Mead can explain this, his argument literally falls apart.

    My second problem with Mead’s thesis is that he boldly asserts that religion, in particular “hot” religion may be an important part of the answer in alleviating urban ills. But one searches in vain in this post (or in his other posts on the subject) for any data which suggests that his thesis has merit. Actually, it’s worse than that; Mead doesn’t even present any anecdotal examples. All we have is Professor Mead’s assertion presented as if (excuse the pun) it is gospel truth.

    Mead is certainly right that religion, especially what he calls “hot” religion is on the march from the slums of Gaza to the slums of Rio. But is there any actual evidence that the rise of “hot” religion is improving anyone’s prosperity as Mead suggests it should?

    Two excellent books on the subject are Philip Jenkins’, “The New Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity” or even better, Eliza Griswold’s, “The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam” (both books are available for the Kindle). Each of these books describes in gripping and sometimes horrifying detail how devout religious practices are becoming ubiquitous in various peasant and inner city neighborhoods in poor nations around the world. Neither present any evidence that the waxing of religious beliefs is making the believers less destitute. My question to Professor Mead is, if “hot” religion isn’t improving the lives of impoverished people in other nations, why do you believe it will improve the prosperity of poor people in the United States?

    As Professor Mead knows perfectly well, amongst charismatic and Pentecostal Christians in the United States, one of the fastest growing traditions is so-called “prosperity theology.” Supposedly the movement has tens of millions of adherents. In fact, so prevalent is the belief that “Jesus blesses believers with riches” that some, including journalist Hanna Rosin, have actually argued that the “prosperity gospel” was an important factor in creating the recent housing bubble.

    Regardless of whether that is true or not, is there any actual evidence that adherents of “prosperity theology” climb out of poverty faster than anyone else? Is there evidence that Pentecostals in the United States have fewer out of wedlock children or that their divorce rate is lower? Is there evidence that those with “hot” religious convictions in the United States have children who suffer from fewer truancy problems or that they are less likely to need welfare for long periods of time?

    Professor Mead, you have been entirely clear on what you think. Unfortunately you seem loathe to present any evidence that suggests that your convictions about the state of “blue” America or the problems of America’s inner cities are based on anything other than faith.

  • Andy S

    Scott M:

    Please see Prof. Mead’s previous essay called “Black & Blue” (note at the bottom) for why Black is capitalized sometimes and other times not. I think you will find he *is* being consistent and not just haphazardly throwing terms around as you seem to be suggesting.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Shannon Love nails it.

    Leftists operate on an oppression model of human interaction. If A is less well off than B, it must be because B is, somehow, “oppressing” A. Thus, there is asserted to be a basis for the leftist insistence on expropriating B for the alleged benefit of A. A non-trivial population of “wretched of the Earth” types is, therefore, essential or leftist political philosophy loses its coherence and reason for being.

    It is noteworthy that the continued existence of populations of the intractably poor and dysfunctional is not required to maintain the coherence of conservative or libertarian political philosophy. Both belief systems, in fact, would benefit from the poor all becoming non-poor – there would be nothing remaining for the lefties to beat them up about.

    Keep that in mind. Ending poverty is equivalent to ending their main political enemies to conservatives and libertarians. To leftists, ending poverty is equivalent to ending themselves.

  • teapartydoc

    Wanna save cities? Eliminate zoning.

  • Tom Holsinger


    Plain old corruption has more to do with it. The essence of the blue state model is government spending. You should look at government spending as an income stream which can be tapped en route by the politically connected who will then share with deserving elected officials. It really doesn’t matter where, or who at, the income stream is directed as long as as the stream exists.

    With the happy side effect that demands for accountability result in a larger oversight bureaucracy who will happily feast on the income stream, and share with deserving elected officials, etc.

    This is also known as a “self-licking ice cream cone”, though some call it “the blue state model”.

  • Wigwag,

    Some suggestive data on the benefits of churchgoing for urban minorities and family formation is located at http://www.americanvalues.org/pdfs/researchbrief5.pdf

    I’m pretty sure the research is clear that effective family formation lessens other forms of social dysfunction, so the argument using those premises is obvious.

    As for the original post, I’ve been researching housing law and whether it negatively impacts the formation of church-centered neighborhoods. For instance, it appears to be illegal to mention that a house or apartment for rent or sale is near a church or place of worship or even a religious school. (The dubious reasoning is that it it signals intent to discriminate)

    My sole policy recommendation is to allow this information to be included in advertisements. This would make it slightly more likely that prospective churchgoers would move near a church and be more likely to go to church and benefit from it.

    It would also facilitate volunteerism.

    The effects of changing this housing law may be marginal, but even marginal gains are real.

  • We have declared “war” on “certain” neighborhoods. And we are surprised at the result? It will take several generations to work this out of the system. Once we start.

    What do we need to do to end this farce? Equal enforcement in all neighborhoods. White people wouldn’t stand for it.

    Johnny busted for pot? A mere youthful indiscretion. Jamal? Obviously a sign of a future life of crime. Make it so.

    And one other thing. You can buy an awful lot of votes with other people’s money. Until you run out.

  • One might also wish to look into how urban churches benefit from the Drug War by offering “rehabilitation services” to those who fall afoul of the law. A very sweet deal. Except for those who would rather not live in a war zone.

  • WigWag

    Some more questions for Professor Mead…

    If religion, especially of the hyper-devout variety, is a valuable tool to help believers escape from poverty and other urban ills, how does Professor Mead explain that in communities that are already inhabited by large numbers of believers poverty is frequently worse than in more secular oriented communities?

    In Israel, the segment of the population that practices the “hottest” form of Judaism, the ultraorthodox community, is also one of the poorest and most dysfunctional segments of the Israeli population. The community is impoverished, they receive all forms of public assistance far more often than other population groups in Israel and they are both unable and unwilling to participate in Israeli society as a whole; for example their children frequently don’t serve in the Israeli Defense Forces.

    Is it different in Islamic nations? Not really. In Pakistan for example aren’t the most religiously devout communities often the most impoverished? Certainly a “hot” form of Islam is flourishing in the Northwest Frontier Provinces. Is there any evidence to back up Professor Mead’s thesis that as religious practice becomes more widespread the symptoms of poverty in this area are diminishing? What about Mogadishu; what has hot religion done to reduce poverty in that city?

    In the Christian world as the Pentecostal world view spreads at the expense of Roman Catholicism in places like Brazil are the newly devout escaping poverty at a faster rate than their more secular colleagues? Is it devout Pentecostals who are driving Brazil’s economic success or is it their more secular neighbors who should be credited with turning Brazil into a modern economic powerhouse?

    I am not convinced that religion in general and “hot” religion in particular does not have a role to play in the United States in helping to alleviate the ills of the inner city. But before Professor Mead trumpets hot religion either as a panacea or even a positive force, shouldn’t he provide some evidence that it has worked elsewhere?

    If he can’t, why should we believe that religion will help solve the problem of America’s inner cities?

  • Anthony

    WRM, using Marx as reference contrasts world views perhaps no longer germane but I must concur on the impersonal process by which capitalism creates wittingly or unwittingly grounds for on-going lumpemproletariat (this is not a value judgment on capitalism just an observation). Because at bottom what we are discussing is a class issue all over the world (urban areas), the question for me is can capitalism in its many guises envelope profitably this seething crisis both domestically and globally? You have summarized lumpenproletariat existence (gangs, illegitimacy, thieves, prostitutes, crime, and down-and-outers) in many urban areas. Objectively, this being America, incontestable facts will be subjectively interpreted and perhaps categorized depending on where “one sits.” However, despite our political alignments (right, left, center, etc.) or in spite of them we can agree that most of us are wearied by urban chaos and breakdown. Now, how to combat it realistically in an analyst perspective shorn of rightist, leftist, centrist denotations requires sober focus on fact that U.S. is poorly run as accumulation of social/economic problems attest. Is this a consequence of political neglect (institutional problem) or citizen neglect (community problem)?

    Identification by Right of New Deal social legislation/regulation and by Left of capitalism/free enterprise as one of causes for urban ills identified by lumpenproletariat label may be misplaced – causes may lie elsewhere and may require analysis of middle class canons vis-a-vis self image of responsibility. This is not a New Deal Socialism versus Free Enterprise problem but an recognition of “dead ends” left in the wake of constantly transforming large capital (ownership). A social system that pits its citizens competitively against each other and makes property ownership (Big Property not houses) the price of the ticket in avoiding societal risks needs a closer look by its citizens experiencing discomfort laid at the feet of WRM’s lumpenproletariat.

    I think it is morally justifiable for citizenry to feel politically and culturally weary from urban decay as cited. Yet,to respond to problem rationally takes analysis and program adoption (mission and mandate) determined by involved Americans for human answers: one life at a time, one block at a time, one neighborhood at a time. WRM is correct souls need to be addressed; but the answers also reside in our hearts as we contend with societal elements percieved as squeezing our existence/comfort. So, to begin confronting WRM’s litany we have to be forthright in both our analysis and prescriptions as the interests of the broad U.S. public lie beyond left, right, and center labels vis-a-vis American cities.

  • So, to begin confronting WRM’s litany we have to be forthright in both our analysis and prescriptions as the interests of the broad U.S. public lie beyond left, right, and center labels vis-a-vis American cities.

    So how much OPM (Other People’s Money) are you going to need?

  • Anthony

    Public policy entails cost; not OPM but TPM (tax payer money). There has been much discussion of the problems facing America’s cities. The TMI (the money issue) responds to public investment decisions inherent in societal governance. Public investment decision making is not easy in practice; benefits are not always quantifiable and may be intangible by nature. However, the simple mechanics of capital evaluation infer (present debt ceiling contretemps aside) concluding social value to country of viable cities and citizens then determining ability fiscally to make it happen based on fiscal resources. Of course, public finance is never so simple in democracy.

  • Nolan

    An excellent read related to the subject in this post, particularly the relationship between the USFG and religious groups, can be found in Robert Wuthnow’s “Saving America.” http://press.princeton.edu/titles/7703.html

  • But what happens when there is a strong religious presence in urban or poor rural neighborhoods, yet the churches themselves are engaged in promoting government dependency and exploiting government resources?

    I submit that this is the status quo among most denominations, including large ones, that serve the poor.

    In urban cities like Atlanta, Chicago, and Baltimore, evangelical and Baptist church leaders are among the most corrupted and politically destructive “spokespeople” for the worst parts of the status quo. They’re always available to take a payback at election time, and they line their pockets from every conceivable social program going — jobs training, prisoner “re-entry,” community redevelopment.

    When I was writing grants in Atlanta, it was well-known that you needed certain signatures on an application to pass muster, and those signatures were not free.

    Then there is the larger issue of churches as paid service providers for case management of federal programs such as WIC, Medicaid, Section 8, and refugee and immigrant resettlement and aid. This is a huge revenue stream for religious groups. Catholic Charities is the largest example but not the only one. And despite the positive behavior and ethics standards these institutions uphold and promote, they’re often oddly silent on the subject of demanding such standards from their client groups — standards relating to marriage and two-parent households, for example.

    I don’t disagree that strong religious institutions are the answer to many social problems. The problem is that they’re also already a big part of the problem.

  • John Mainhart

    I agree with most of what you say about the problem but I think our Government has become agressive in its desire to separate religion from government. Since this country was founded on Judeo-Christian values you must foster them in general to raise well grounded youths. If your desire is to run all aspects of human existence from a national perspective you don’t have a chance of developing prposeful youths in purposeful communities because we need to solve most of the problems we face on a local level where the people who know the problem know the people they are trying to serve with their solutions.
    If states and national governments are hostile to family life and the importance of children in that equation then you struggle to teach the young to value the very starting point of any culture, that is the family. If the government is going to foster an atmosphere in which the values needed to help the youth are respected they must begin by being personally truthful about the things they say and the policies and laws they make. Touching one soul at a time begins with integrity which is based in truth. There is way too much manipulation of our youth in this country to get them to do what we want even when what we want is good for them. We need to put our values up front in any proposed policy to help the youth.

  • Matthew Book

    Dr. Mead,

    I heartily recommend that you take a look at the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church”, which is a clear and profound expression of a century’s worth of Christian thought on many of the issues you sight. Concepts like ‘participation’, and ‘subsidiarity’ with ‘intermediate social groupings’ are well articulated and researched. They would go a long way in helping to show how a conservative political position is profoundly ethical and would help to broaden the case beyond the typical, albeit very important, issues of personal responsibility and private property. A robust society with many voluntary social structures is more conducive to human flourishing than a bipolar State-citizen arrangement that progressives are always pushing.

    Warm regards,
    Matthew Book

  • Solving poverty is all about changing people from the inside out, and churches are part of the equation. But a trap both government and private charities often fall into is equating “feeding the poor” with “helping the poor.”

    Agencies that unconditionally dispense food, clothing, housing, toys, etc. unwittingly reinforce the destructive notion — already enthroned in the minds of many impoverished citizens — that they are unable to take care of themselves. As long as people believe this, they will act helpless.

    There needs to be more strings attached to assistance — such as active participation (versus mere enrollment) in job training programs, remedial education courses, etc. We should assist only those who show serious intent by making progress towards specified goals.

    Current social policy is crazy. We are crazy. We do the same things over again while expecting a different result. We pay people to act poor, and then we act surprised when they excel at it.

  • Acksiom

    “Government cannot do much under our system to teach boys what being a man really means.”

    Well, apart from stopping all the things it currently does to drive them away from paternal investment in society.

    Wait. . .actually, then, it could do a lot.

    And unless and until it does, good luck getting young men to sign on for the existing fustuarium.

    And Walter, if you aren’t aware how much it really is like that for our young men, you are so grotesquely ignorant about modern isues that you should not be attempting to write authoritatively on them.

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