For a historian, even for a historian of religion in the United States, religious thought is a decidedly unfashionable subject. The rise of social history in recent decades directed attention away from the elites and toward those at the margins of society, most of whom lacked the education or the resources to produce the kinds of work easily recognized by posterity as “religious thought.” Religious studies scholarship simultaneously began to problematize its own assumptions about what counted as religion, moving away from intellectual and institutional histories and toward a focus on culture and practice. Any current survey of the field would identify trends that include the study of lived religion, material religion, and the intersections of religion with the body, gender, sexuality, race, politics, secularism, and popular culture. All of these are vibrant areas of study that have reconfigured the ways we think about religion in America, and none of them places a high priority on narrating religious thought.
Such historiographical trends encourage an expansion of the category of religious thought beyond academic theologians and recognized religious leaders to include the ideas of activists, popular writers, and thinkers outside formal religious contexts. This sort of inclusive turn cannot be made without attention to the power dynamics and differentials that made it possible for some, and not for others, to gain recognition as influential religious thinkers in the first place.