Can religion save America’s inner cities? On his blog over at the American Interest, Walter Russell Mead makes a plea that harks back to the last millennium, when Clintonian welfare reform was new under the sun and the Bush faith-based initiative but a glint in its progenitor’s eye. Mead, a liberal expert in foreign policy, has been hanging around with his old friend Gene Rivers, the Pentecostal pastor in Boston who back in the day seemed like he had The Answer.

Well OK. But a lot of water has passed under the bridge since Rivers graced the cover (“God vs. Gangs”) of Newsweek in 1998. Houses of worship, whether located inside or outside urban neighborhoods, have proven to have only limited capacity to offer the kinds of spiritual outreach and social services that Mead envisages.

That’s not to say that religious institutions are incapable of helping to address the dislocations of the underclass. But comprehensive studies of congregations conducted by Duke sociologist Mark Chaves and others have shown that they need to be integrated into the web of government agencies and large non-profit agencies, secular and religiously connected, that constitute the country’s complex system for providing social services to the poor.

The weakness of the Bush initiative was its insistence that faith-based is inherently superior to secular and governmental. The weakness of the Obama reincarnation (the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships) has been its failure to advance public understanding of the necessity of an integrated approach.

To understand how the latter can succeed, interested Washingtonians should get themselves over to the Urban Institute on M Street at noon next Monday to learn about the Welfare Liaison Reform Project, a $100 million faith-based nonprofit workforce development corporation in Greensboro, N.C. The presenters will be Odell Cleveland and Bob Wineburg, the black reverend and Jewish academic who created the project, made it a model for local faith-based social service provision in our time, and wrote a book about their experience. You won’t be disappointed.

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