Michael Metzger

A number of voters say they’ll boycott this fall’s US Presidential election. Their revulsion is understandable, but William Wilberforce might urge a little caution here.

Voluntarily abstaining from something as an act of protest is what we call a boycott. The act has a long history but the practice didn’t receive its name until 1880. That’s when English Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott directed his employees to ruthlessly evict Irish tenants. His workers had no appetite for this. They refused to cooperate.

Boycotts can stir sentiments. But William Wilberforce was hesitant to use them. Consider when some of his Clapham colleagues sought to boycott sugar. They thought it would help abolish the English Slave Trade. Wilberforce wasn’t so sure.

In 1791, abolitionist revulsion toward the English Slave Trade led some of Wilberforce’s Clapham colleagues to seek a boycott of sugar after the British Parliament rejected (again) a slavery abolition bill. Wilberforce abhorred the slave trade but was apprehensive about this boycott’s possible unintended consequences.

Wilberforce was a systems thinker. He recognized the sugar industry was an economic triangle—English commodity, Caribbean climate, African slaves. Sugar grew best in the Caribbean’s hot, humid climate. But the West Indies had few laborers. They were abducted from Africa. Over the course of the English Slave Trade, only a quarter of the over two million slaves imported from Africa survived. As tragic as this was, Wilberforce feared a boycott, eliminating one leg of the triangle—commodity—would likely cause the entire triangle, the English economy, to collapse.

Furthermore, a boycott would probably not alter the voracious English appetite for sugar. Sugar sweetened almost everything in the English diet, from naturally bitter tea, coffee, and chocolate to pastries, puddings, biscuits, candy, and liquor. It was a preservative in candied fruit, jam, and marmalade.[1] The English craved sugar.

In the end, Wilberforce’s colleagues decided to take no official stand on boycotts. They did however encourage a group of women who published a series of pamphlets urging citizens to stop using sugar. One of the booklets sold an estimated seventy thousand copies in four months. Men were startled, as a ship captain complained to a newspaper upon returning home. “I was surprised to find that [women] had entirely left off the use of Sugar, and banished it from the table.”

A Methodist minister named Samuel Bradburn stated that at least 400,000 homes eventually boycotted sugar. But the English appetite for sugar didn’t slack off. In a global economy, Wilberforce recognized sugar could be bought elsewhere. And it was. Over a two-year period, the sale of sugar from India increased more than ten-fold.

The lesson here is the most effective boycotters think systems. Christian Smith, a sociologist at Notre Dame, says few evangelicals think this way.[2] Christians planning on boycotting this fall’s Presidential election are the most recent example. They don’t see a system, another triangle, this one depicting the US experiment in self-government.

Our experiment in self-government looks like a triangle with three interlocking points—liberty, religion, and virtue. It’s a system. Liberty requires virtuous citizens. Virtue requires religion. Genuine religion requires liberty. As troubling as this year’s candidates might appear to many of us, a boycott, eliminating one leg of the triangle—religion—might one day contribute to the entire triangle, America’s Great Experiment, collapsing.

Most boycotts reflect a lack of systems thinking. There are other options if you find the two candidates irksome. If the dictates of conscience determine that you cannot vote for either one, do a write-in. The point is, it’s hard to see how boycotting will change our poisoned politicized system.


[1] Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), pp. 194-5.

[2] Christian Smith et al, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 201.


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  1. There are actually three candidates on the ballot in all fifty states, not two. One of the reasons we are in this dilemma is that people see this as a binary choice.

  2. Thanks, Mike. I never knew the background to the word boycott. This election is clearly a tough exercise for the thoughtful Christ follower. It will take a hefty level of spiritual discernment to not only understand the system but to seek God’s will. Throwing in the towel and not voting is not an option for thoughtful believers. Clearly, He has shown the sovereign ability to work His will through what seem to be numerous dark grey choices. We need to seek His will, nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else and trust that He is in control.

  3. Mike,

    First, I general thank you for consistently giving me (us) something to look forward to each week in the Monday inbox.

    Second – a question: do I understand correctly that there would be a distinction between ‘system’ boycotts and ‘non-system’ boycotts.

    For example, would the recent boycott of Target be considered ‘non-system’ and would not have the same concern as boycotting the system industry of sugar?

    Target’s recent drop in revenue related to their proclamations concerning bathrooms of choice for transgender customers has adjusted their policy to spend $20 million to provide private bathrooms.

    Or would Target still be considered to have a system such as employees, communities, etc. and would be a concern?

    Third, the one aspect that I see that was better about the sugar boycott than a ballot boycott is that at least the sugar boycott sent the right message (e.g. we are here and we hate slavery).

    A ballot boycott does not send a message, or at best the wrong message of ‘we don’t care, do what you want”.

    I appreciate your admonishment to at the minimum cast a write-in candidate on the ballot regardless of any chance of winning.

    This way the vote is actually counted and it sends a clear message of “I am here and I care – but not for the status quo”.

  4. From what I understand, one of the primary motivations for boycotting this election is not because it will somehow *change* anything but because voting (like everything) is a moral action and some Christians consider voting for either HRC or The Donald to be a morally reprehensible action. I think most Christians believe civic engagement is a good thing but I see no moral obligation to vote in this election (or any election). In any case, I especially object to various conservative “thinkers” like Wayne Grudem and Jerry Falwell, Jr. arguing that Christians have a moral obligation to vote for Trump.

    Apart from the importance of voting for other elected offices on the ballot, there doesn’t seem to be any real difference between abstaining from casting a vote for the next POTUS and writing in a name (since this is basically a throw away vote).

  5. Observing from the UK, with this context
    – a ‘x’ an a ballot paper has the equivalence
    of a signature for
    – an anonymous person
    – an illiterate person
    Matching the concept of access through a secret ballot.
    It is not reasonable to spoil the ballot paper by identifying yourself or communicating an offensive message

    Therefore you have the option of
    – choosing a candidate by placing a cross
    – choosing not to speak, by not voting – so advocating for yourself
    – choosing to amend the ballot paper by adding the message you would like the returning officer and candidates to see.
    i.e. None of the below/below, or adding an appropriate advocate.

    However, in your context I understand a computer reads the ballot through a punched hole method. So who is to be your advocate and how can it be communicated becomes the issue if you don’t support either candidate or don’t write an alternative ? Do you wish your communication to be public ? It is possible in my opinion for a an appropriate message to be sent without the public protest of a boycott.
    A boycott is a collective or individual public process.

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