Nine years ago, the president of Zambia boldly proclaimed his country officially a "Christian" nation.
Standing on the steps of a government building in the capital city of Lusaka, President Frederick Chiluba announced, "I, on behalf of the people of Zambia, hereby declare that Zambia is a Christian country. The hour has come to wake up from our slumber because salvation is near."
It has been nearly a decade since Chiluba made that declaration. How is Zambia, a central African nation of 10 million, faring as a result? Not too well, it seems. A recent report in Christianity Today, a leading evangelical magazine, charged that the declaration is "largely meaningless, according to church leaders."
Zambia has long been plagued with corruption, crime and endemic poverty. None of this has been alleviated by Chiluba's bombastic statement.
"There is very little to show that we are a Christian nation with so much wrong-doing, both in private and public life," said one church leader. "There is nothing to distinguish us from secular nations."
A Catholic priest put it even more bluntly, saying: "Lust for money, power and social privileges has been made to look like a virtue. This has resulted in the worsening of social indicators, high poverty levels, widening of the gap between the rich and the poor, endemic corruption and a sharp rise in crime."
Leaders of political opposition groups charge that Chiluba and his supporters have used the "Christian" label to cover up their misdeeds and distract people from their constant plundering of the nation's wealth.
TV preacher Pat Robertson, who has a disturbing habit of cozying up to tin-horn dictators around the world, feted Chiluba on his "700 Club" program on April 25, 1995. Gushed Robertson to Chiluba, "Your country is a standard for not only Africa but the rest of the world." Turning to his audience, Robertson asked, "Wouldn't you love to have someone like that as president of the United States of America?"
Robertson, of course, lives in a mansion in Virginia Beach not in a hovel in Zambia. Robertson, unlike Chiluba's critics in Zambia, speaks his mind on politics without fear of government-sponsored reprisals. It's easy for Robertson to praise Chiluba's "Christian" Zambia he doesn't have to live there.
The people who do reside in Zambia know better. Government officials thought that crowds exceeding half a million would attend a recent celebration marking the eight-year anniversary of Chiluba's declaration. Fewer than 10,000 actually showed up.
If Zambia is Robertson's ideal of a "Christian nation," we have all the more reason to stick with what we know works better separation of church and state.