1 of 12
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
A photographer shoots photos during the opening session of the World Congress of Families IX at the Grand America in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015.

SALT LAKE CITY — Action was the word of the day at the World Congress of Families, which kicked off its first conference on U.S. soil Tuesday.

Over a day of forums and panels, speakers repeatedly declared the battle over abortion, marriage and families is reaching a critical point.

Gov. Gary Herbert and Utah's first lady Jeanette Herbert gave a brief welcoming speech Tuesday evening. The Herberts, avoiding mention of any specific hot-button political issues, touted Utah as a family oriented state and talked about the importance of raising children with strong morals, rooted in strong families.

"I do have great concern for these children," said Jeanette Herbert, citing the alarming rise of social media and the Internet as a "growing threat to society."

The governor reached back to his roots to describe how, as a child who grew up on a farm, he learned about the importance of fertile soil.

"I view that as a kind of metaphor, because that's the important aspect of families," Herbert said. Nurturing families are "a foundation or seedbed" for future citizens and leaders.

The World Congress of Families bills itself as the "largest gathering of pro-family advocates in the world." The organization brings hundreds of scholars, religious leaders and motivational speakers together every year to talk about the "natural family," defined by the organization as a family centered around the marriage of a man and woman.

Throughout the day, speakers trumpeted what they said were the social, economic and psychological benefits of marriage — on children, on the couple and on the economy — and the need to take action in support of family.

A conference spokesperson said that based on the number of registration passes that were handed out, 3,000 people attended the first day of the four-day conference. Many attendees said they had traveled from around the world, as far away as South Korea, Nigeria and Australia to attend the conference.

Jayson Tam, a pastor at a large evangelical church in Hong Kong, said he listened to a panel on the pro life movement and abortion with interest.

Tam said he was interested in learning "how the groups here promote family values in such a diverse country." Hopefully, Tam said, he could take those strategies back to Hong Kong.

At that panel, Charmaine Yoest, the president of Americans United for Life, gave a speech about how pro-choice activists are twisting abortion into being "a power statement."

But, Yoest said of activists, "They are scared."

She showed a slide from the Guttmacher Institute, an organization that supports reproductive rights, that shows the number of new abortion restrictions passed by states has increased sharply in the past four years.

"The story over the next few decades is one of trench warfare," Yoest said, referencing the secretly recorded videos made by The Center for Medical Progress that purport to show Planned Parenthood officials bargaining over the price of fetal tissue.

World Congress of Families speakers are expected to dig further into issues like divorce, pornography and the decline of faith over the next three days as well as the strength and importance of the family in society in what the conference's executive director, Janice Shaw Crouse, called a "Popeye" moment.

"These are times when Popeye says, 'I can't stands no more, I've had all I can stand.' At that moment, he eats some spinach, he rolls up his biceps and he goes to work to solve problems. I believe that we here at the World Congress of Families IX stand at a Popeye moment."

Criticism from some LGBT rights activists has dogged the World Congress of Families and some of its presenters leading up to the conference. On Monday, the Human Rights Campaign held a press conference in Salt Lake City and accused the organization of using "pro-family" values as a cloak for anti-gay and anti-transgender discrimination, allegations strongly refuted by the conference.

Doree Burt, a member of Mormons Building Bridges, said she attended the conference on Tuesday hoping to hear messages of compassion for gay and gender non-conforming children.

She said she found the opening speech from Elder M. Russell Ballard of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles heartening and balanced, but said she was disappointed by a panel discussion that took place in the same ballroom a few hours later.

"They all took turns mocking Caitlyn Jenner, calling her a he/she," said Burt. "The suicide rate with kids who are transgender is so much higher, so for me, that was so hard to hear, because it was done in a mocking way."

Tuesday's closing keynote address was given by Nick Vujicic, an Australian motivational speaker and evangelist who spoke about how his faith helped him overcome his physical disabilities.

"If God can use a man without arms and legs to be his hands and feet, then God can use you," Vujicic said.

Vujicic, a kinetic and magnetic speaker, exhorted audience members to spend more time with their family, to donate more to charity and to spread the word of God.

"Who are you?" he asked the audience, taking a long pause afterward. "Are you here to serve? Yes. Here to learn? Yes. But don't go home and let that balloon fill into nothing from the excitement of the conference. Do something."

Email: dchen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DaphneChen_