SALT LAKE CITY — A growing number of Americans are losing confidence in religious institutions, along with schools, Congress, banks and television news, according to a recent poll.

Gallup's annual confidence survey found all of the 16 institutions measured this year either held steady or declined in public confidence. The biggest declines in public confidence, from last year to this year, were in television news, public schools and organized religion.

The results found confidence in most of the institutions is below historical averages since the poll was first taken in 1973. Gallup specifically attributed the crisis in confidence to financial and sex abuse scandals that have rocked both Protestant and Catholic faiths over the past two decades.

In a broader context, pollsters determined that because more than half of the institutions it measures annually have hit bottom at some point in the past five years, organized religion is affected by a general lack of confidence in most major institutions.

"Once Americans begin to feel better about the way things are going in the United States, some of their lost confidence in the country's major institutions will likely be restored," Gallup concluded.

But those monitoring the decline in church membership and activity aren't so sure confidence in religious institutions will bounce back with the economy or when memories of scandals fade. They see a corresponding trend of people leaving their faith primarily because faith and partisan politics have become too intertwined.

"I have concluded that religious leaders need to understand the importance of avoiding partisan politics or they will literally end up preaching to the choir," said Jonathan Merritt, an author who has researched the recent flight from faith particularly among "millennials," young adults born in the early 1980s.

Other recent research backs up Merritt's warning. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found in 2009 that while about half of American adults change their religious affiliation at least once in their lives, the group that has grown the most due to religious change is the unaffiliated — those who leave religion altogether. Pew found that roughly half of those who became unaffiliated did so because of reasons related to their religious and moral beliefs.

For example, 56 percent of Catholics who are now unaffiliated say they left the faith because of its teachings on abortion and homosexuality. Another 48 percent drifted away because of the church's position on birth control.

The National Congregations study blames church hierarchy for driving away congregants over controversial moral issues, such as gay and lesbian ordination.

"Indeed, national conflicts probably cause rather than reflect conflicts within congregations," the 2009 study concluded, "meaning that congregations would argue about homosexuality even less if denominations did not sometimes force them to take sides."

Academics Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, who wrote "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us," found the group most affected by these trends is millennials.

"To them, 'religion' means 'Republican,' 'intolerant,' and 'homophobic,'" they wrote in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs. "Since those traits do not represent their views, they do not see themselves — or wish to be seen by their peers — as religious."

The mixing of religion and party politics over highly charged social issues is not a new phenomenon. Putnam and Campbell noted religious leaders took sides along party lines over abolitionism and prohibition. But an unending string of religious liberty disputes dating back to the 1962 Supreme Court's school prayer ruling and the courting of religious conservatives by the Republican Party since the 1980s has enmeshed religion and politics in a way that experts say will have unintended consequences for both politics and religion.

Both political parties, particularly Republicans, and organized religion risk driving away today's young adults.

"Beyond that, all sides — progressive and conservative, religious and secular — should be concerned that placing a partisan label on religion has hurt the ability of religious leaders to summon moral arguments on behalf of causes that transcend left and right," Campbell and Putnum wrote.

So when religious leaders feel compelled to address moral and social issues, such as abortion or same-sex marriage, can they do it without driving away congregants?

"They need to avoid giving the impression that following Jesus implies one will either become a Republican or Democrat," said Merritt, a Southern Baptist whose father was head of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2000-02.

He explains that there are many politically charged issues affecting society that should be "fertile ground" for a spiritual discussion on the Sabbath. Where things go awry is when the pastor veers away from scriptural-based principals and into partisan policy.

"Same-sex marriage was not imagined by New Testament writers, but clearly there are principles in scripture that apply directly to this debate. The problem is when we stop teaching principles and begin teaching public policy," Merritt said. "The church has been at its worst when endorsing and propelling politicians and their individual policy and strongest when it is empowering its people with a moral framework to engage in public policy in an informed and spirit guided way."

The Catholic Church has been flexing its muscle in American politics this election season. More than two-dozen Catholic organizations have sued the government over health care mandates that they claim are contradictory to its doctrine against contraception and thereby violate its religious freedom. The nation's bishops tried to rally the faithful to the church's cause in Fortnight of Freedom events last month.

The Internet has been full of news accounts, blogs and columns taking sides on the appropriateness of the Catholic Church taking a political stand. And while time will tell if the church's public stance against Obamacare will drive congregants away, local diocese government liaisons like Jean Hill in Salt Lake City are holding seminars informing parishioners about the church's longstanding faithful citizenship document that encourages members to be well-informed and involved voters.

"That’s been a huge challenge because there are issues that are divisive that people tend to stay away from to avoid upsetting people," Hill said. "But religion isn’t about just feeling good and have everything be what you want it to be. It is hard and you have to stand for something and that’s never easy."

She said she faces two challenges in her training seminars:

1) Helping Catholics understand that the church's positions on abortion, climate change, contraception and other issues are not based on party politics but are deeply held beliefs based on church tradition and an understanding of scripture.

2) Encouraging congregants to become well-informed so they can confidently vote their conscience.

"My approach is to remind people we don’t get to make easy choices in the voting booth," Hill said. "Each individual has to go in there having thought through these issues and decide for themselves who is the candidate who represents their beliefs."

The pending Republican presidential nomination of Mitt Romney has prompted his church — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — to reiterate its policy of political neutrality. But the LDS Church will weigh in on local and national issues that it believes have moral consequences or affect its interests, such as liquor regulation, gambling or same-sex marriage.

Every election year, LDS leaders encourage members to participate in the political process. And with a lay clergy and an open exchange of opinions during class instruction, political partisanship can easily surface among Mormons meeting every Sunday. But leaders stress respect for differing opinions.

"The church expects its members to engage in the political process in an informed and civil manner, respecting the fact that members of the church come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences and may have differences of opinion in partisan political matters," said spokesman Scott Trotter.

Despite First Lady Michelle Obama's view expressed at the recent African Methodist Episcopal Church's General Conference that there is "no place better" than church to discuss politics, research has shown that church leaders have noticed their dwindling numbers and have backed off politically themed sermons. In 2006, Putnam and Campbell found 32 percent of Americans attending a church heard political content in sermons at least once a month, compared with just 19 percent in 2011.

And Merritt warns if church leaders don't pay attention to the data and allow their congregations to function merely as voting blocs, it will cheapen the institution of religion and force those seeking a more sacred and spiritual experience to look elsewhere.

"If, however, the church recognizes what is happening, if the trends serve as a wake-up call," he says, "we might find the best days of Christianity are ahead of us."