Music has always meant a lot to me. I am, however, not musically talented. As I child I never saw The Sound of Music (or Mary Poppins, for that matter). College finally introduced me to Julie Andrews when friends were aghast at how deprived my childhood had been. Sound of Music was cute, but I didn’t really “get it” until someone explained that it is largely a true story. There really was a Maria von Trapp and Captain. Much of the story, of course, my colleagues (not really knowing) told me was fabricated. My daughter has recently returned from a musical tour of part of southern Europe, centering mostly on Austria. The tour group visited Salzburg and saw where part of The Sound of Music was filmed. When she returned home we decided to visit Stowe, Vermont. This mountain community, known for its skiing, is where some of the von Trapp family still live. Not sure what to expect, we signed on for a tour of the Trapp Family Lodge (a little beyond the comfort range of someone unemployed until recently).
The first surprise came when Sam von Trapp, the grandson of Maria, introduced himself as the tour guide. Many of the mysteries of fact versus fiction were cleared up—I can’t reveal it all here, otherwise you might not visit Stowe for yourself—and the person of Maria von Trapp became much more like the rest of us. During an interview taped four years before she died in 1987, Maria explained how the course of her life was changed by the mountains around Salzburg. Feeling the presence of God there, she joined the convent that sent her to tutor one of Baron von Trapp’s daughters and that eventually led to her marriage and the formation of the Trapp family singers. She was urged on in her marriage, as the movie indicates, by the sisters of the convent.
A second surprise emerged as the narrative turned to how the von Trapp family tried to help out others in times of difficulties. Not content to count themselves uniquely blessed by having escaped Austria the day before the Nazis closed the borders of the country, they sent supplies to those who were still under threat of Hitler’s regime after the Anschluss. The home made famous by the movie became Nazi headquarters in Austria. It seems that in this case religion led to a favorable result. Some critics argue that religion brings no good. I have to admit that often I feel as though attempting to justify it at all is a fool’s errand. It is good to be reminded once in a while that lives are sometimes changed for the better by what they believe to be the divine voice. Even in my horror film world, The Sound of Music still has its place.
For some reason Austria is on my mind. It been more than two decades now since I have been there, but I recently decided to read a little of the history of Salzburg. My interest revolved around a case of religious intolerance that took place well before the days of political correctness, but after the idea of religious freedom was being promoted in New World colonies. Two centuries after Martin Luther’s theses stirred the world (perhaps the last time in history a religious thesis has received such attention), the Roman Catholic Archbishop—and Count! (rank has its privileges)—Leopold Anton von Firmian decided to expel the Protestants from Salzburg. Religious diversity was frequently seen as a threat to civil authority. Either Protestants would recant or be forced from their homes in the winter, often losing everything they had in the process. A substantial number of citizens were exiled and found little in the way of refuge. Prussia finally offered some quarter and others made their way to England or to a then religiously tolerant Georgia.
Religious imperialism is a funny phenomenon. Religions, as sets of teachings, often emphasize the just and fair treatment of other people. When powerful people (or power-hungry people) become religious they find a great mind-control technique available in it. Popes, for instance, very quickly ceased being pastors and instead styled themselves as princes. This was a safe move since Jesus was king, and since he’s in heaven any attempts at usurpation are bound to be suspect. As a co-regent, however, various privileges apply! This is something Protestant reformers very swiftly learned as well. John Calvin was practically in charge of Geneva, and who can think of Lynchburg, Virginia without accounting for Jerry Falwell or Virginia Beach without Pat Robertson? Religion, by its genetic nature, seeks to take over and control.
In this it is not so different from other aggressive ideologies such as capitalism or communism. The problem is that religions claim sanction from the highest authority, and once a believer is convinced of that no amount of reason is sufficient to dissuade him or her. So it was that an Austrian Count, also an Archbishop, decided to turn out members of his own putative religion (Christianity) into a harsh winter where many would die and others would live the remainder of their lives in exile. Were this the hallmark of one religion alone we might have united together as a species and cast it out. Unfortunately history has repeatedly shown us that even the most placid religions can quickly form the dark face of a demonic storm front if certain of their privileges are threatened. No one likes to be wrong. In the game of religions, however, there must be losers if anyone is right. Where is the New Salzburg? It may be going by a different name these days.