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Miniseries traces religion's U.S. impact across 400 years

Associated Press Modified: October 6, 2010 at 1:05 pm •  Published: October 6, 2010

A central component of the series is the use of dramatic reenactments to help make history come alive through the spirituality and struggles of key historical figures. Viewers walk alongside Franciscan friars in New Mexico, sit in on a debate between Puritan John Winthrop and dissident Anne Hutchinson and pack a suitcase with fundamentalist politician William Jennings Bryan on his way to argue against evolution.

Other re-imagined figures include abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Reform Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and evangelist Billy Graham, among others.

Belton says every word of dialogue in the reenactments was actually said or written.

"We needed to tell the proper narrative story of what had happened. We also had to reflect that there were new battles going on in people's minds, new questions. Would they be able to live and exist in a new country? Would they find that they had a religious place here?"

The series intricately considers the roots of religious liberty and its development in America's courts and politics. It also probes how religious ideas shaped later reform movements and created a competitive religious marketplace.

"That's what America really needs to understand about itself," Belton said. "It has this extraordinary religious heritage that informs everything it does and why it thinks the way it does. It's not just a series of religious documents that make people feel free, that were written by Jefferson and Madison. America feels a need to be transformational."