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.
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