Alaska, Australia ... another site on the A-List for travel is, in my opinion, Austin, Texas, where I've lived for almost 20 years. Stay with me, please, because I hope this will not be the typically self-indulgent piece that emerges when columnists write about their hometowns. While I respect the love of place that welled up before the running of the Kentucky Derby on May 3 as the crowd warbled "My Old Kentucky Home," it's hard to wax sentimental about a city that has as its official slogan "Keep Austin Weird."
Austin, like other cities with large universities, has its own foreign policy, and our city council dutifully opposed America's liberation of Iraq. While the mint juleps were pouring in Louisville two Saturdays ago, some 800 left-wing activists representing four different causes (scorn for private property, scorn for George W. Bush, scorn for FOX news, scorn for the U.S. military) marched through downtown Austin. That day we also had a mayoral election in which the GOP contender won only 7 percent of the vote-but he did garner more support than another also-ran, a bearded male candidate who is usually seen around town wearing a dress.
Austin has long been politically both hilarious and sad. I wrote six years ago (WORLD, March 8, 1997) about the city council's apparently greater interest in protecting species of cave spiders than protecting human life generally (Austin has city-paid abortions) or the lives of poor people on the east side of town. But instead of giving up, conservatives and Christians in Austin should push for new alliances while praying to God for openings among people who, while more hostile on the surface than many less-weird Americans, at least may realize that they still haven't found what they're looking for.
Let's discuss political and economic alliances first, beginning with Austin's history as a home to many music entrepreneurs. In the past several years alone several Red River Street blocks near downtown that were the habitat of drug dealers and prostitutes have grown 10 venues for live music, with four of the five biggest owned by musicians. No one wrote a master plan or floated a bond issue to inspire those listening posts. City government helped to revive the area not by appointing a culture czar but by performing basic police and public safety tasks. The Austin police assigned a team of officers to the area. Five-time-a-year fire inspections guarded against club infernos.
The result is a series of pleasant places for listening to the mix of renegade country songs and high-voltage sound that typifies Austin's musical creativity. No city-funded, internationally renowned architect planned out the Stubbs stage and outdoor gathering area, or the mix of indoor and outdoor space that typifies spots like Red Eyed Fly. Conservatives should give two cheers for the Red River capitalists, those who had a little capital and invested it to create both new music opportunities and a positive cash flow.
The Red River music revival, though, is increasing property values in that area, and the taxman is sure to follow. Many large cities have killed their economies by raising taxes that discourage small businesses, and Austin is doing the same. Short-haired conservatives need to ally with long-haired, sometimes radical music entrepreneurs to fight tax increases, bureaucratic development requirements, and edifice complexes that involve construction of taxpayer-funded concert halls for approved music. Why should officials decide which sounds are artistically correct, and then force individuals and businesses to pay subsidies?
Much more could be said about that type of alliance building, but let's quickly note the need for churches to reach out to musical nihilists and others who feel alienated. Opportunities for outreach abound: One analyst, Joe Hootman, describes Austin as a "hypermodernizing city that is increasingly attracted to religious expressions of decidedly anti-modern beliefs." The growth of Christian groups reflects that trend: A former Intel executive planted a vibrant church that now has five daughter congregations with a total of about 2,500 worshippers each Sunday. The Christian Home Education Association of Central Texas has over 6,000 families on its education rolls, with graduate degrees aplenty among the family heads. The largest religious student group at the University of Texas is the Chinese Bible Study, which claims 800 participants.
Sometimes Christians recoil from weird Austin and, like Jonah overlooking Nineveh 2,800 years ago, see the city as a prime candidate for fire and brimstone. But God has a different perspective: As He instructed Jonah, "Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?" That last phrase particularly resonates with Texans, but shouldn't all of us try to make God's perspective our own?