For many US churches, the cause of peace and nuclear arms control is emerging for the 1980s with the same sense of moral urgency that civil rights had for churchmen in the '60s.
While the lead on the peace issue is being taken by figures in historically liberal ''mainline'' Protestant denominations and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, there also have been significant stirrings in the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination and usually a bastion of conservatism.
Seven Southern Baptist state conventions have adopted statements on peace, according to Glenn Hinson, a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary here. Conventions in Virginia and North Carolina passed ''strong statements,'' he says, though a pronouncement on peace was killed in Alabama.
Like most of his counterparts in other denominations, Mr. Hinson does not call for the United States to embark on a course of unilateral nuclear disarmament.
''We don't know the exact approach for arms reduction,'' he says. ''But we try to lend our weight to encourage discussion and form peacemaking groups and get people to become politically involved to support arms reduction.''
The Rev. Kenneth D. MacHarg, director of Louisville's religious ecumenical agency, says he feels the current peace movement in American religion is far different from the battles against the Vietnam war.
Describing it as ''more of a populist movement . . . less extreme, less radical,'' Mr. MacHarg said most mainstream religious leaders are campaigning for nuclear arms control in ways designed to include, not alienate, average church members who may be wary of calls for unilateral disarmament.
Some recent developments indicate the mounting importance being accorded the peace issue in American religious circles.
Dr. Avery D. Post, president of the 1.8 million-member United Church of Christ, recently told members of his foreign mission board here that the denomination is becoming a ''peace church.''
Making peace the chief item on its agenda will begin to align the United Church with such pacifist groups as the Quakers, Mennonites, and the Church of the Brethren, church spokesmen say.
''We are not known as a 'peace church' year in and year out like the Mennonites,'' explains William Winslow, a United Church communications officer.
''But our synod felt it's the most pressing issue now, as our forebears felt the abolition of slavery was the most pressing moral issue in the last century, '' he adds.
The denomination's foreign mission arm is also being asked to consider new guidelines that could lead it to dispose of stock in companies that manufacture arms.
Dr. Audrey Smock, world issues secretary for the mission agency, says General Electric and American Telephone and Telegraph shares would be affected under the proposals because both corporations are closely involved with the US Defense Department and each manages a nuclear installation.
Halting the nuclear arms race emerged as one of the three major concerns during a meeting of the nation's Roman Catholic bishops in Washington, D.C., in late November.
''The church needs to say 'no' clearly and decisively to the use of nuclear arms,'' declared Archbishop John R. Roach in his presidential address to the bishops' conference annual session.
Support for arms control will loom large in the bishops' lobbying efforts as a result of the meeting, along with their concerns for battling poverty and banning abortion.
Some leaders among the country's 50 million Catholics already have moved beyond conventional lobbying on the peace issue.
Bishop L. T. Matthiesen of Amarillo, Texas, has urged workers at his area's Pantex plant, which assembles nuclear weapons, to quit their jobs. Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen of Seattle has taken a more radical step, asserting that citizens would be morally justified in refusing to pay 50 percent of their income taxes as a nonviolent protest against the nuclear buildup.
Bishops of the Episcopal Church have committed themselves to a ''weekly act of fasting and prayer for the peace of the world'' until next September, when the denomination's governing general convention meets in New Orleans.
Saying that ''massive nuclear overkill poised for instant use represents deadly insecurity,'' the Episcopal prelates said in a recent pastoral letter that they were determined that ''our actions may reflect a new resolve of leadership in peacemaking.''
The letter was designed to be circulated to parishioners in some 7,000 churches. It urges 2.8 million Episcopalians to join them in fasting and praying for peace.
Along with fellow Southern Baptist Theological Seminary faculty member Glen Stassen (son of former Republican presidential candidate Harold Stassen), Mr. Hinson is a key figure in his denomination's embryonic but growing peace movement. He edits the Baptist Peacemaker, a newspaper focusing on arms control and related issues, sponsored by a local church.
''We've gone this route in setting up the paper because Southern Baptists are usually so wary of the ecumenical movement,'' Hinson said in an interview. ''If Southern Baptists are going to hear what our brothers and sisters in other churches are saying about peace, it's going to have to be said for them by a fellow Southern Baptist.''
Hinson agrees that other churches are treating peace and nuclear arms control as a moral imperative analogous to the civil rights crusade two decades ago. But he says he feels the similarities aren't necessarily all there for Southern Baptists since their innate ''social conservatism'' has held many of them aloof from the struggle for black equality.
''With civil rights, people knew it was right but feared how far the movement would go and how radical the changes might be,'' he observes. ''With peace, the issue is also divisive. Many of our people don't see it hitting as close to home as civil rights since . . . most of the talk about nuclear war now is about Europe.''
The Southern Baptist peace movement has great obstacles, Hinson admits. Among them are the more ''militaristic'' tradition of the South and the ''powerful influence'' exerted on the denomination and its pastors by the Moral Majority, which supports a strengthened military.
Though Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell is an independent Baptist with no connection to the Southern Baptist Convention, Hinson says studies have shown Mr. Falwell to be the ''most influential figure in forming our pastors' outlook on political issues.''
But the Southern Baptist ''mania for foreign missions'' has assisted the peace movement in gaining attention and support, the scholar says.
''Our people are seeing that military spending is hampering programs they're devoted to,'' he says. ''They become more interested in peacemaking when they see the arms race and the threat of war would hamper the foreign mission effort.''
Three years ago, the movement was initiated with a ''Baptist Peace Convocation'' at a local church. It drew endorsements from President Carter, evangelist Billy Graham, and some past denominational presidents; but its participants were mostly drawn from the Louisville seminary's student body.
Now, Hinson says he believes the Baptist Peacemaker constituency is large enough that a second convocation has been scheduled in Louisville next Aug. 5-7 (to coincide with the day an American plane dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima). This time, pastors and lay men and women from across the country are expected to attend.