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The metric system and the future of America

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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A closeup of a wooden ruler showing both imperial (inches) and metric (centimeters) forms of measurement(Credit: Biking Nikon SFO via Flickr)

I think the metric system is a metaphor for the future of America.  Here’s why.

My thinking begins with Seth Stevenson, who writes fascinating articles for Slate.  His most recent column responds to Whatever Happened to the Metric System? by John Bemelmans Marciano.  According to Stevenson, a meter was originally one ten-millionth of the length of a longitudinal meridian between the equator and the North Pole.  Got that?  The meter changed in 1960 when it took its basis from the wavelength of krypton-86 radiation.  It changed again in 1983, and now is the length of the path traveled by light in a vacuum during 1/299,792,458 of a second.

By contrast, a yard was originally the distance from the sternum to the tip of the outstretched hand.  And a foot was the length of, well, a foot.

Despite the obvious simplicity of the British system (properly known as “English customary measures”), in the 1970s a move to the metric system began accelerating in this country.  In 1975, President Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act, requiring the federal government to help industry and small business convert to the metric system.

However, popular sentiment began turning against metric conversion.  In 1982, President Reagan ended funding to the U.S. Metric Board, the main body responsible for leading the switchover.  And we’ve been mostly on the British system ever since.

Here’s what I’m wondering: Will immigration change things?

I live in the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex, where 47 percent of our population is first- or second-generation immigrant.  There are entire communities in Dallas where signs in English do not exist.  I can drive 20 minutes from my home into areas which look and feel exactly like Mexico, which is unsurprising since the people who live there have come from Mexico.  The same is true for areas populated by immigrants from Vietnam, South Korea, China, and other parts of the world.  And Spanish labels alongside English are common everywhere in our city.

Half of the under-five age group in America is now composed of racial and ethnic minorities.  By 2043, white people will no longer be a majority in this country.  Since most of the world uses the metric system, will America’s rising immigrant population eventually make metric notation as common in our nation as Spanish is in Texas?  And if so, so what?

Let’s use a conversion to the metric system as a case study for culture change.  Would you be more resistant to the metric system if it were made mandatory?  If you viewed it as un-American?  If there were no personal advantages for you in converting?  Conversely, would you be less resistant if it were voluntary?  If you viewed it as helping America’s economy succeed?  If you might see economic gains in converting?  (For instance, you could be a retailer whose sales might jump if metric measures were included on your products.)

Now let’s turn this discussion to the gospel.  Conversion from British to metric measurements is a small thing compared with conversion from another religion or no religion to Christianity.  If we help non-believers see Christianity as a voluntary movement which is beneficial to our nation’s future and their personal lives, we are far more likely to be persuasive.

Jesus always began with felt need, earning the right to speak to spiritual need.  As my friend Randel Everett says, I have no right to preach the gospel to a hungry person.  Ken Medema says in one of his songs, “Don’t tell me I have a friend in Jesus until you show me I have a friend in you.”

Imagine you were tasked with convincing your friends and family to convert to the metric system.  Where would you begin?  Now move your thinking to the good news of God’s great love.  How will you help someone trust Jesus today?