Letter to Keith R. Tolbert from Rick Ross

Rick Ross, Consultant to Keith Tolbert of the American Religious Center in June, 1994

June 1, 1994

Keith Tolbert
American Religious Center
Box 168
Trenton, MI 48183

Dear Keith,

I have still not received any response to my letter dated May 16th. I expect a letter of apology regarding the false and/or misleading statements about me that you have made in public, both orally and in writing.

Since our meeting in April, I have tried to verify the claims you make about yourself and the "American Religions Center" (ARC). This background check is based upon the packet you distributed at a press conference for Victory Church April 14th, at Grand Forks, North Dakota, when you acted as a paid spokesperson for that church. Pastors Ed and Renee Julison hired you to respond to allegations about their finances and abuse of church members (e.g. shepherding practices). The Grand Forks herald also ran paid advertising and coverage of your visit. I have copies of all these materials on file along with audio tapes of your remarks.

You claim to have "earned a philosophy degree" (Bio and ad Grand Forks Herald attached) and another degree in "biophysics" (1984 The Detroit News attached) from Wayne State University, Detroit MI. However, according to the student records office (Ethel Settler pH. 313-577-3531) you only attended classes, but never received any degree. By the way, only one Keith E. Tolbert has ever attended Wayne State University.

You claim to be a "professor" at Valley Bible Institute of Saginaw MI and to teach a "course" there in "Understanding Cults". However, the office of records (Heather Medler ph. 517-791-2131) states that though you have lectured there, you hold no full-time position as a "course" instructor and have not lectured there since 1992. The Valley Bible Institute requires at least a bachelor degree to teach there. According to their records, you met this requirement by claiming two degrees from Wayne State University.

You also claim to be a "lecturer of apologetics" at "Ashland Theological Seminary" (according to "ARC/Tyndale Symposium" brochures 1988, '89 and '90 attached). However, I spoke with the assistant to the President of that seminary, Ms. Lennie Riech, an 18 year staff member (ph. 313-832-0400) and she has never heard of you. Ms. Reich made inquiries, but no staff she spoke with had ever heard of you on your work.

You list a daily radio program called "Heart and Mind" on WLQV in Livonia, MI (under "ARC…Programs" in your promotional literature attached). However, I spoke with John Yinger, the station manager at WLQV and he advised your program has been off this air since May of 1992. Moreover, you left WLQV with bad debts (e.g. bad checks attached). Also, the station was served interrogatories naming you as a "garnishee defendant" in a collection action regarding James and Jill Cooper (see attached).

I spoke with Mary Ann Waterman, the attorney for the plaintiffs in the previously mentioned legal matter. Ms. Waterman advised that there is still an unpaid judgment against you (1991) for about $20,000.00. Also, that the Copper's seem to have given the money to you in hope of helping your ministry (i.e. ARC).

You state that the "American Religions Center" (ARC) "is a non-profit educational corporation". However, I spoke with your former "Media Public Relations Rep.", Mike Mrazik (ph. 313-347-3767) and he said that he was informed that ARC has no IRS records as a non-profit corporation. Likewise, Ms. Waterman and a former business advisor to ARC, Sam Avarado, also verified this fact.

I spoke with Mr. Avarado, he advised that you were paid about $12,000.00 for radio advertising by his business the "Mexican Fiesta" restaurant. He was a sponsor for your program "Heart and Mind." However, you still left unpaid bills amounting to thousands of dollars at WLQV. He said that you "never rally explained where all the money went." You also collected thousands of dollars from other advertisers according to Mr. Avarado. He "attempted" to act as your business manager, but could not because of your secrecy, lack of disclosure and questionable practices.

Your checking account is titled "Apologetic Research Coalition" (ARC) on the previously mentioned bad check, rather than "American Religious Center" (ARC) as it is now called. Several people have advised me (e.g. Mike Mrazik, Ms. Waterman) that you have used both names for ARC.

Fund-raising you may have done as a "non-profit" would be considered fraud, unless you are a non-profit corporation. In the 1984 article in The Detroit News, it states that the "9-year-old nonprofit organization [ARC] runs on the $50 to $500 fees Tolbert collects" (see attached). By the way, this article refers to "Apologetic Research Coalition" (ARC). Ms. Waterman said you were a non-profit some "years ago", but never made a point of filing proper reports etc. and that the corporate non-profit status "lapsed."

You claim to have gone on a "world tour" of the "Philippines, Australia, Africa, Germany, [and] England." You also advised in the previously mentioned interview with Diane Katz of The Detroit News that you were "one of a select few invited to present a paper to 150 religious teachers from around the world" at a "Harvard symposium" in 1984 at "Harvard Divinity School." Again, Mike Mrazik, your former assistant, said there was no "world tour" and he has not seen proof of the so-called "Harvard symposium."

During your time in Grand Forks, North Dakota, you attacked so-called "secular anti-cult organizations" (e.g. Cult Awareness Network), the notion of "mind-control," interventions (e.g. "deprogramming") by families to bring loved ones out of cults and the book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism and author Robert Lifton, MD you said Lifton had "died" literally.

Obviously you don't do your homework. Robert Lifton is alive and your critique of his book indicated you really had not read it. For example, you said that "if you only had one or two points [Lifton's eight criteria chapter 22] would you be a cult?" First, Lifton does not offer the criteria to prove who is or is not a "cult", but rather whether a group is using thought-reform. Second, he states that if six of the eight criteria are evident, thought-reform is active. You should have read the chapter.

You then stated there are "no studies to substantiate [Lifton's] criteria" and no "evidence for brain-washing." Again, you need to read more before making judgments. Lifton conducted interviews with about 40 victims of Chinese Communist thought-reform. This research was sponsored by the Asia Foundation, Washington School of Psychiatry, the Ford Foundation and administered through Harvard University.

Moreover, further research on this general subject was conducted by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D. for his book Influence. Likewise, still more by Flavil Yeakley, Ph.D. for his book, The Discipline Dilemma. In the chapter "A Psychological Study", Yeakley discussed how he tested 900 members of the so-called "Boston Church of Christ" (often called a "cult") with the Meyers-Briggs Type Personality Indicator. His results demonstrated personality changes as a direct result of undue influence and control exerted by the group. Further testing yielded the same results in well known cult groups, but sharply differed in main-stream churches.

The Encyclopedia of Sociology has published an article entitled "Coercive Persuasion and Attitude Change," The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, the most widely read medical book in the world, has also published on this topic in their 15th edition. Both the American Psychological and Sociological Associations have passed resolutions that acknowledged the reality of though reform.

The DSM-III-R (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association) includes the following within diagnosis 300.15, Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified: "dissociated states that may occur in people who have been subjected to periods of prolonged and intense coercive persuasion (e.g., brainwashing, thought reform, or indoctrination while the captive of terrorists or cultists). [emphasis added]".

During your diatribe about "deprogramming" and any recognition of the existence of "brainwashing" you went on and on likening this to an attack upon "religious freedom," "reprogramming" and "assaulting the personality." These claims are ridiculous and unsubstantiated. I asked you to interview former members of Victory Church, some who had been "deprogrammed," but you refused. No former members that I know of have renounced their Christian beliefs. I also asked you to call Wellspring Retreat (rehabilitation center for former cult members) where many ex-members of Victory Church sought help. The staff there is composed of Evangelical Christians.

You seem to have drawn all your conclusions based upon your interviews with leaders and members of Victory Church. I began my work with this group by reading their literature, listening to their teachings and reviewing their materials. It was not possible to interview members at that time due to client confidentiality. When did you ever allow anyone abused and traumatized by this group to share with you? Or, asses the group with professionals who have treated their casualties? You certainly have had that opportunity.

Books are available about destructive Bible-based groups written by Evangelical Christians. You refused to acknowledge this during your lectures. Churches that Abuse, by Robert Enroth, Toxic Faith, by Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton, and The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen are some examples. Moreover, books have been written about the "Word of Faith" message currently being debated ( a primary doctrine of Victory Church). Christianity in Crisis, by Hank Hanegraaff of the Christian Research Institute or A Different Gospel, by D.R. McConnell explore this issue. Are these Christian scholars attacking "religious freedom?"

It seems you have become a cult apologist. During your press conference and lectures you aligned yourself with well-known cult apologists such as Gordon Melton (you claim is "the greatest scholar of our day" regarding religion) and George Robertson of the so-called "Friends of Freedom."

Melton has testified as an expert witness on behalf of a cult against an Evangelical organization the Spiritual Counterfeits Project. He has a long history of association with cult groups, e.g. Scientology. I have a letter on file in which he apologized (after a warning) for crediting me for a police raid on a cult in Vermont. I had no part in the raid and have never been in Vermont. Melton presented this information in an "academic paper." Is this your idea of a "scholar?" Perhaps he is your model.

George Robertson has long associated with Scientology and is a member of the cult formerly called the "Bible Speaks" (Carl Steven, MA) now named "Greater Grace of Baltimore, MD." Robertson was the first apologist chosen by the Julison's for Victory Church. His credentials are also specious.

These matters are very serious. You have falsely claimed credentials you do not have and used these claims to deceive others. You may have collected donations under false pretenses. You seem to prey primarily upon the Evangelical Christian community and have tried to manipulate many Christian scholars, clergy, academics, organizations, schools, church's and publications such as Christianity Today and Charisma. Likewise, members of the media have been subjected to your fraud, e.g. The Detroit News, and the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota.

The most important issue, however, is the way you mislead people. You came to Victory Church as their so-called "cult expert," largely based upon your false credentials. But you did not warn the members about shepherding and mind-control helping them to beak free from their bondage. Instead, you made them feel that their church is being "persecuted" and that they should stay. This could cause them years of abuse and pain. How many more lives will you damage through work like this?

Over a month ago, you said you would "fax" documentation to verify your claims. I am still waiting.

Rick Ross

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