|By Zachary Freiman
The through-line of Ranen Miao’s life has been his steadfast commitment to the social good. The winner of this year’s AU Student Essay Contest, Miao chose to write about the Religious Right’s use of religious freedom as a license to discriminate, and why it is essential that advocates for church-state separation reclaim the term itself (you can read Miao’s essay here).
I recently spoke with Miao in order to get deeper insight into his upbringing and outlook on issues facing society.
Despite having lived his whole life in New Jersey, Miao is the child of two immigrants. Both his parents grew up under the “immensely repressive” regime in communist China. Chinese authoritarianism, which heavily restricted religious practice and all that comes with it (assembly, community, charitable efforts, etc.), says Miao, gives him deep insight into what “religion does and can do and what it’s done in the past.”
Starting this fall, Miao will begin his first year at Washington University in St. Louis, a prestigious research institution with an enrollment of about 15,000. Miao intends to study political science in order to “give back to [his] community in some way, whether it be through public service or journalism, education or business.”
It’s the same spirit he has practiced throughout his life.
In high school, Miao engaged in a plethora of community service activities. Not only did he volunteer with Key Club International, the oldest high school community service program in the country, but also with the Red Cross, the Thirst Project and the New Jersey Federation of Food Banks. As he put it, his volunteerism ran the gamut from a Thanksgiving food drive and smaller bake sales to build wells in Africa to food shelters in New Jersey.
Volunteer work wasn’t his only passion in high school, though. Miao is a debate champion. Ranked first in the country for congressional debate, Miao has traveled to over 12 states and the District of Columbia defending his title.
Congressional debate competition “is a form of debate where you pretend to be a mock legislator and speak on bills and resolutions,” he explained. It’s what made his research into religious freedom laws in this country come easily. Miao is such an excellent debater, in fact, that he traveled to Germany, Singapore, Slovenia and Taiwan as part of the USA Debate Team.
When I asked Miao what had interested him in submitting to the AU student essay contest, he replied that a few years ago he met the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the former head of Americans United, at the national summit of High School Democrats, of which he was also a member. Lynn spoke of the separation of church and state and “how the line is currently being blurred,” which spurred Miao’s concern and investment in the issue, after which he signed up for a subscription to AU’s Church & State. When Miao saw a notice in the magazine about the essay contest, he felt he needed to speak up for marginalized communities and submit his own commentary.
In particular, Miao has found “media coverage infuriating about LGBTQ issues” and thought that he “could write better if it meant something” to him – specifically, how as a gay, Asian, young adult, he perceives the discrimination and abuse facing minority groups in this country.
Struggling with his selfhood and his sexuality in high school led Miao to his current fight against the “weaponization of ‘religious freedom.’” Not only that, but Miao passionately disagrees with the use of religion as a tool of discrimination against women seeking access to medical care such as birth control and abortion services, and those identifying as LGBTQ+. His upbringing within a diverse, multi-faith community in New Jersey solidified his view that religious extremists are a fringe minority and not a reflection of what religious communities actually stand for. Instead, Miao firmly believes that religious communities on the whole are inclined toward peace and tolerance and can be extraordinarily productive and beneficial elements of society.
Miao sees himself as part of a generation that glows with a “youthful optimism” about the woes plaguing our world. He believes civically engaged young people have the tools to address everything from climate change to gun policy and student debt. When I asked what issue matters most to him, he tied those big three (plus LGBTQ equality and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment) to “the fundamental corruption in our democracy” in the form of campaign finance laws.
Currently, Miao doesn’t identify with any particular religious tradition. “I wouldn’t say I’m atheist,” he told me. “I’m open to exploring religion more in college.”
As Miao demands tolerance for religious faiths and minority communities, he plans on continuing his own journey of discovery. We at AU wish him – and all youth activists out there – nothing but the best.
Zachary Freiman is a senior at Pomona College, majoring in public policy analysis and music. He interned in Americans United’s Communications Department this summer.